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South Asia: Vajpayee's Visit Does Little To Quell Violence In Kashmir

A blast rocked a village in Indian-administrated Kashmir today, killing four people and wounding many more. The explosion come on the heels of a weekend visit to the region by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who declared there are no issues India and Pakistan cannot resolve peacefully.

Prague, 22 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Today's fatal bomb blast in Indian-administered Kashmir casts in doubt this weekend's offer by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to solve all problems with Pakistan "peacefully and democratically."

Pakistan said yesterday it was ready to hold talks with India at the earliest opportunity. Farhatullah Babar, a member of the Pakistani Senate, told RFE/RL Vajpayee's proposals may signal a breakthrough in the decades-long debate over Kashmir.

"We welcome it with guarded optimism and we hope that it will lead to the beginning of a meaningful and constructive dialogue between the two countries, which has been stalled for a long time now," Babar said.

Hostilities between India and Pakistan over the Himalayan region have led to two wars and years of cross-border terrorism. The rift has taken on a grim new significance since both countries gained nuclear capabilities in 1998 -- making Kashmir one of the world's most pressing security concerns.

Vajpayee on 19 April reiterated India's demand that terrorist acts halt before negotiations begin. But Babar said he hopes the remarks were primarily aimed at pacifying the prime minister's audience at home, and will not in fact spell a stop to what progress has been made.

Babar also suggested Vajpayee's remarks may be tied to the scheduled visit to Pakistan and India next month of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca. Pakistani officials have referred to the visit as a "peace mission," implying the U.S. officials will be there to defuse mounting tensions between the two sides.

But some observers are skeptical the visit will bear fruit. Rahul Bedhi is a New Delhi-based analyst for British-based Jane's Intelligence Service. He told RFE/RL that India routinely rejects all third-party mediation.

"[India] opposes all United Nations mediation as well as the third-party [mediation], which means United States or any other country that is willing to mediate," Behdi said. "Pakistan is willing to go for United Nations mediation as well as United States mediation. But India is very, very strongly opposed to it. [The results of the U.S. State Department mission] will depend on what levers of power and pressure points Washington can exert on New Delhi to persuade India to allow [third-party mediation]. But I think any political party, any government that is in office [in India] -- if it allows third-party mediation on Kashmir with Pakistan -- will not survive."

Just 20 years ago, picturesque, mountainous Kashmir was a tourist attraction. But the ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan has produced thousands of refugees and tens of thousands of civilian casualties. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Kashmiris are Muslim, only a third of the western part of Kashmir is administered by Pakistan. Most of the remainder is under Indian control. A Muslim insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir began in 1989; sporadic violence has continued ever since.

It is the Kashmiris themselves who have the least power over their own future. In 1948, the UN adopted a resolution for a plebiscite in Kashmir, a former princely state which in 1947 became part of India rather than Pakistan only because of its ruler's whim. But a plebiscite never took place. Now India considers the resolution too old and irrelevant.

India claims that Kashmir is a domestic problem exacerbated by Pakistani interference. Pakistan has long asserted its right to have a say in the fate of the largely Muslim region. With such fundamental disagreements, Bedhi said, the two rivals are unlikely to find common ground anytime soon.

"There is nothing very much new to what the Indian prime minister said [this weekend]. He said that he's willing to extend the hand of friendship to Pakistan, providing Pakistan stops 'cross-border' terrorism. Pakistan denies any involvement in 'cross-border' terrorism. So, it's back to the same situation as it was before Prime Minister Vajpayee went to Kashmir," Behdi said.

For more than a decade, India has refused to negotiate with Pakistan over Kashmir, accusing Islamabad of supporting militants. Early in 2002, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf cracked down on Islamic militants infiltrating Kashmir from Pakistan; the leaders of the militant groups were arrested and several terrorist organizations were banned. But while Pakistan's Babar said cross-border terrorism has waned, Bedhi in New Delhi said Musharraf's move changed very little on the ground.

"Last year there was a crackdown on militants but subsequently a lot of those militants who were arrested were released and they have been freed. And a lot of militant organizations that the Pakistan government cracked down upon have re-emerged with new names, with new bank accounts, with new headquarters. According to Indian intelligence, there are about 3,000 militants waiting to cross over into Indian-administrated Kashmir," Behdi told RFE/RL.

Babar conceded that Islamic militants do appear to be gathering force to fight for Pakistan in Kashmir. Their threats reflect the war of words often heard between the government hierarchies, with Islamabad and New Delhi routinely exchanging angry warnings. Just last week, the Pakistani foreign minister said his country's missile program is "far more advanced" than India's.

Nuclear parity was largely credited with deterring a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Bedhi noted there were never any territorial disputes between Moscow and Washington, and that the situation is simply different when three nuclear states -- India, Pakistan, and China -- are all involved.

"India has a territorial dispute not only with Pakistan but also with China. And I don't think a situation of this kind has ever existed in the world where there are three [hostile] nuclear-weapon states [in a region]. China [and] Pakistan share [borders] with India and [have problems] with India. China has a problem dating back to early 1960s with India over about 80,000 or 90,000 square kilometers of territory, and Pakistan has a problem with India over Kashmir. India has been [at] war with China once since independence and it has been to war with Pakistan three times," Behdi said.

Bedhi said India and Pakistan exchange artillery and small-arms fire almost daily along their 7,800-kilometer-long border. Were the conflict to escalate, Bedhi admitted that Pakistan's nuclear delivery systems are more advanced because they were acquired from China and North Korea and are better tested and more reliable. By contrast, India's weapons systems are manufactured domestically and are still in the developmental stage. In terms of conventional weapons, however, India is the stronger state.

Pakistani Senator Babar said he does not like to think that war over the region is imminent. But he added, "If the escalation goes on like this, then anything is possible."