Putin seeks to mediate in Kashmir dispute


KASHMIR: Russia's president, Mr Vladimir Putin, launched a mediation effort in the Kashmir crisis last night. He invited the warring leaders of India and Pakistan to Moscow for talks after meeting both men separately and speaking of "positive signals" and grounds for optimism.

While Pakistan's military leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, promptly agreed to negotiations in Moscow, the Indian side balked, declaring that any such talks should take place in India or Pakistan.

At a summit of 16 regional leaders in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Mr Putin, the first outside head of state to try to mediate over Kashmir, sought to cajole India's Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Gen Musharraf into pulling back from their nuclear-armed brinkmanship.

Mr Putin said after separate sessions with both men: "They have no intention of using force to resolve problems . . . Both sides voiced opinions that cannot be interpreted as anything but an intention to settle conflicts by peaceful means".

Mr Putin met the rival leaders separately for 90 minutes each and appeared to be seeking agreement on joint military patrols of the line of control which would address India's complaints of Islamic militants infiltrating Indian-controlled territory from Pakistan and staging terrorist attacks.

Sitting only a few metres from one another at the talks, Gen Musharraf and Mr Vajpayee avoided each other's gaze.

When delegates socialised as the meeting ended, the two rival leaders stood on opposite sides of the room, studiously ignoring one another.

Officials said Mr Vajpayee did not want to be "wrong-footed" at Almaty like he was at a South Asian conference in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in January, when Gen Musharraf "ambushed" him by a "tactical" handshake.

Gen Musharraf said yesterday: "We do not want war. But if war is imposed on us, we will defend ourselves with the utmost resolution." The people of South Asia continued to pay a heavy price for the refusal by India to resolve the Kashmir dispute in accordance with UN resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people, he said.

Mr Vajpayee responded by accusing Pakistan of using nuclear blackmail and accused Gen Musharraf of not keeping any of his promises of stopping Pakistan's territory from being used to launch terrorist attacks against India.

"Nuclear powers should not use nuclear blackmail," Mr Vajpayee said. India has a second-strike policy of using nuclear weapons in a conflict, while Pakistan, which is weaker in conventional arms, retains its right to use weapons of mass destruction first.

There was further trouble on the battle lines yesterday as two people were killed and 15 were injured in Pakistani Kashmir as Indian troops shelled border villages. The Pakistan army later said it had retaliated, killing eight Indian soldiers and destroying four bunkers.

Over one million Indian and Pakistani troops, backed by missiles and armoured columns, have been deployed against the other for over five months. But the troop concentration is the thickest in Punjab and in Jammu and Kashmir, where most of the fighting is expected to take place if war breaks out.

Pakistan denies supporting Kashmir's 13-year-old insurgency that has claimed over 35,000 lives.

Meanwhile, India's border town of Jammu re-activated its air-raid sirens and conducted an hour-long "blackout" drill yesterday, in anticipation of war.

Civil defence officials in Jammu, around 25 miles from the border, said the drill, conducted along with the Indian Air Force, which has several of its strike squadrons based in and around the city, was designed to prepare residents for imminent hostilities.

"We are advising residents to dig trenches in their homes for protection against air raids," civil defence inspector Mr Basant Singh said, adding that Jammu had come under air attack during the 1965 and 1971 wars.