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Pakistan's president suggests Russia help mediate dispute

Monday, June 3, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- With India's prime minister unwilling to meet with Pakistan's president at a summit in Kazakhstan this week, the Pakistani leader held out the possibility Sunday that Russia could serve as a mediator in the crisis over disputed Kashmir.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said there was "no plan" to meet Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of a regional summit in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The summit, which both leaders are attending, begins Monday.

India has ruled out such a meeting until it is convinced Musharraf has fulfilled his promise to stop Pakistan-based militants from crossing into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir.

With the two sides at an impasse, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will also attend the Almaty meeting, has offered to mediate the crisis, which threatens to escalate into nuclear war.

During a stopover Sunday in Tajikistan en route to the summit, Musharraf expressed optimism that Russia, a traditional ally of India, could help -- presumably by shuttling between the two sides.

"I think that President Putin can persuade India to join a dialogue," Musharraf told reporters. "Pakistan will not start a war. We support solving the conflict through peaceful means."

Musharraf said he would "meet anywhere and at any level" and wanted one-on-one talks with Vajpayee. But "if he doesn't want to, I will not insist," Musharraf said.

Under pressure

However, Musharraf is under conflicting pressure between the international community to stop cross-border terrorism and from Pakistan's Muslim activists that he stand firmly behind Kashmiri rebels battling Indian rule in the contested Himalayan region.

Vajpayee, who arrived in Almaty on Sunday, is likewise under strong domestic pressure to put an end to what many Indians consider terrorism.

"We have lost more than 1,000 people after September 11," India's ambassador to the United States, Lalit Mansing, said on "Fox News Sunday."

Pakistani officials maintain that Musharraf is cracking down on the militants as he abandoned his Afghan Taliban allies last year and backed the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But the Pakistanis insist that India show flexibility by agreeing to talks on the future of Kashmir.

Without concessions from India, Pakistani officials fear a firestorm from Islamic activists, including extremists linked to al-Qaida and believed responsible from terrorist attacks on foreigners in Pakistan.

In a bid to gain international support, Pakistan said it will send envoys to the United States and elsewhere to relay Islamabad's stand on the crisis -- that it wants to discuss a solution but India won't come to the table.

Later this week, Washington is separately dispatching to the region two envoys -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- to try to ease the tensions.

"President Bush has called upon us in Pakistan to control and to stop what is described as cross-border infiltration," Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Maleeha Lodhi, said on "Fox News Sunday."

"But I think it's very important to ask India whether it is also responding to the call of the international community," she said.

Some Western diplomats and U.N. officials have left India and Pakistan amid concerns the military standoff, punctuated by daily shelling and gunfire across the border, could escalate into a full-fledged war.

Malaysia on Sunday urged nonessential embassy staff and families of its diplomats to leave -- following similar decisions by the United States, Britain, France, Israel, South Korea and the United Nations.

Kuwait advised its nationals Sunday not to travel to India and Pakistan "until the causes of tension and escalation are contained," while Iran said its citizens should avoid unnecessary visits.

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes, in a tearful speech to a military conference in Singapore, said Sunday that India would neither be "impulsive" with Pakistan nor weak in "the war against terrorism, the same terrorism which hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

Fernandes repeated India's pledge to avoid first use of nuclear weapons.

"There is no way India will ever use a nuclear weapon other than as a deterrent," Fernandes said. "We stand by our nuclear doctrine."

Pakistan, which has a smaller military, has not ruled out a first nuclear strike, although Musharraf told CNN on Saturday "any sane individual" would ensure that any conflict not go nuclear.

Fresh mortar and artillery fire broke out Sunday across the line that divides Kashmir.

An early morning barrage from the Pakistan side killed a 20-year-old woman and wounded five other civilians, said witnesses in the village of Garkhal, about 75 miles south of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu-Kashmir state.

In Naugam, which is 20 miles southwest of Srinagar, a suspected Muslim militant was killed by Indian army soldiers in a gunbattle, according to an Indian army spokesman.

A Pakistani military spokesman said "unprovoked" artillery and military fire from the Indian side killed three civilians and injured 12, including three children.

India's military said Sunday its troops had fired artillery into the Pakistani side of the Naushahra and Sunderbani areas north of Srinagar on Saturday, killing five Pakistani soldiers and destroying two bunkers. The Pakistani military spokesman called the claim false.

Hundreds of people have fled homes in the border areas, with some on the Pakistani side loading up household goods Sunday on wagons.

"We are living in a very dangerous situation," said 65-year-old shoemaker Mohammed Sadiq. "The Indians shelled this area overnight, cutting off electricity and communication. They fired for about an hour. It's very difficult for us to stay here."

In Singapore, Fernandes wept as he recounted violence against Indians in Kashmir.

"I'm sorry for the difficulty I have every time I think of this," the defense minister said. "The country is angry and anguished. The pressure on our prime minister ... to launch an attack is intense."


Editors' note: Associated Press correspondent Dirk Beveridge contributed to this report from New Delhi.


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