India demands action, says secretary of state

NEW DELHI, India -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a delicate peace mission, said Thursday that India still wants Pakistan to act more forcefully against Islamic extremists, but tensions between the two countries have eased.

The United States stands ready to help "its two friends," Powell said, to defuse a crisis over the disputed region of Kashmir that has rattled the world. The two nuclear-armed nations have massed hundreds of thousands of troops on their border in their largest buildup since a 1971 war.

In Washington, India's defense minister, after meeting with top officials, also said he was optimistic the crisis would ease, despite a new terrorist attack in Kashmir that killed one.

"Against the backdrop of recent developments, I have reason to believe sooner or later these issues will now be on the way to resolution," said the Indian defense minister, George Fernandes.

India demands that Pakistan crack down on militant groups based on its soil and battling India's rule over two-thirds of Kashmir. Tensions have flared since a Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups and Pakistan's spy agency. Pakistan has denied involvement.

Powell, a day after visiting Pakistan, was coming to India with new ideas to defuse the crisis, he said, but would not elaborate what those were. He was to meet Friday with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

American officials have been pressing for India to acknowledge that Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf is trying to crack down on Islamic militants. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld both praised Musharraf's recent speech condemning terrorism and vowing to curb militants.

Rumsfeld, after meeting with Fernandes in Washington, said he believes Musharraf "is moving within his government to take actions to follow up on the speech," and urged both sides to pull back troops.

"I do not believe it is in either of their interest to stay for a long period at a state of high mobilization," Rumsfeld said. "I think the tension is unhelpful to them, unhelpful to the world."

But India Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh indicated Thursday night, after a meeting with Powell, that Musharraf must do more.

"India has always been ready and shall continue to take further steps," Singh said. "But I have to see action on the ground."

Powell called that "perfectly understandable."

The heightened tensions between Pakistan and India have come at a delicate time for the United States, which wants the cooperation of both nations in fighting terrorism.

Rumsfeld has said he hopes the standoff will not prompt Pakistan to move troops from its border with Afghanistan, where they remain on the lookout for members of al-Qaida, including Osama bin Laden.

Powell said Washington would never insist on a role in talks between India and Pakistan, but would help if asked.

"To the extent that ... both sides ask us to assist in that dialogue, the United States is ready to assist its two friends," he said.

While Powell has been highlighting an easing of tensions in recent days, before arriving here, he told ABC's "Good Morning America," "I think the situation has been very dangerous and it continues to be dangerous."

In one development sure to worry Pakistan, Fernandes made clear that India hopes to buy military equipment from the United States. Military ties between India and the United States have "increased considerably" in the last year, the minister said.

Powell, asked Wednesday by reporters about such arms sales, tried to reassure Pakistan that closer U.S.-India military ties would not destabilize the region.

"We have been very careful, with respect to the kinds of military cooperation we involve ourselves in, especially when it comes to the sale of weapons," Powell said.

A senior State Department official, John Bolton, was holding talks in Israel this week in an effort to persuade Israel to delay the possible sale of early warning advanced radar planes to India, according to diplomatic sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Fernandes said the United States was not pressuring Israel and he's confident India would get the planes. India says they are needed to patrol the border with Pakistan.