India and Pakistan urged to exercise restraint

 

The United States and Britain intensified their diplomatic efforts yesterday to prevent a full-scale war between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir.

As both countries reinforced troop deployments along their lengthy border, the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, called on the two nuclear powers to exercise restraint. His remarks echoed a similar call from President Bush, who spoke to the leaders of India and Pakistan over the weekend. The US President is so concerned by the threat of a war that he is considering sending a special envoy to the region in the new year.

The Anglo-US diplomatic initiative came as Pakistani and Indian troops exchanged fire across their disputed border in Kashmir. Amid fears that the border skirmishes could develop into the fourth Indo-Pakistan war since independence in 1947, the countries' two leaders convened round-table talks of major parties to rally support.

The Indian Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, won support from senior leaders of 11 political parties, including eight opposition groups and three which support his coalition, for the military build-up.

Gen Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President, held similar talks with political leaders in Islamabad. He issued a blunt message that Pakistan's forces would strike back if attacked.

Tension between India and Pakistan has been at its highest level in 30 years since December 13th, when Islamist gunmen opened fire on the Indian parliament in Delhi, killing nine Indians. Five of the gunmen died in the attack. India blames the shooting on Kashmiri militants sponsored by Pakistani intelligence, a charge Islamabad strongly denies.

India is demanding that Pakistan hands over the leaders of two Islamist groups which it claims were behind the shootings.

Pakistan, which has frozen the assets of both groups, insists that India must provide evidence that would stand up in a court of law.

In a sign of the grim atmosphere, the Taj Mahal is to be covered with dark cloth to protect it against possible bombing raids. Local tailors were reported to be stitching more than 400 metres (1,300ft) of khaki to be strung across India's most celebrated monument, even though Pakistan is unlikely to bomb an Islamic mausoleum.

There were reports last night that India has stepped up troop deployments well beyond the disputed area of Kashmir to the less contentious south-west border area of Gujarat. This prompted strong warnings from Pakistan. "Our anxieties are mounting, not only by the day but hours as we receive information about the movement of Indian forces on the border," said the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Mr Abdul Sattar.

Pakistani officials said they feared India could be on the verge of mounting air strikes against alleged terrorist camps in the area of Kashmir under the control of Islamabad. Gen Musharraf warned that Pakistan would respond in kind against any attacks.

"Pakistan wants peace, wants to reduce tensions, wants to de-escalate," he said. "But having said that, Pakistan has taken all counter-measures . . . If any war is thrust on Pakistan, Pakistan's armed forces and 140 million people are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might."

India said it also wanted to avoid war, although it was prepared for conflict. Mr Pramod Mahajan, the parliamentary affairs minister, said: "Nobody in the government or in the opposition is keen for any kind of war. All of us don't want to go for a war. No sane person will go for a war. [But] if war is thrust upon us, then we should face it united."