Kashmir dispute worsens as Powell arrives for talks
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Secretary of State Colin’s Powell’s South Asia visit got off to a rocky start Monday as Indian troops opened fire on Pakistani positions in the Kashmir region just hours after Powell appealed for restraint.
The Bush administration has been hoping that Pakistan and India would contain their differences over Kashmir at least for the duration of the American-led military campaign against Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization.
In Washington, President Bush urged India and Pakistan to try to avoid military conflict over Kashmir, because fighting there ”could create issues” for the anti-terrorism campaign.
”It is very important that India and Pakistan stand down during activities in Afghanistan or, for that matter, forever,” Bush said.
Pakistan’s support for U.S. operations is considered crucial because it is adjacent to Afghanistan. India has been sharing intelligence and offering other support for the anti-terrorism coalition.
Powell, who arrived here Monday night, is planning to make the case for restraint in Kashmir during a meeting Tuesday with President Pervez Musharraf and on Wednesday when he meets Indian Prime Minister Atal Bahiri Vajpayee in New Delhi.
A senior Indian army official said Indian forces shelled Pakistani military posts across the cease-fire line Monday in Kashmir, destroying 11 posts. The Pakistan army was returning fire as midnight approached Monday, a Pakistani army spokeswoman said.
Bush said Powell’s mission was ”to talk to both sides about making sure that if there are tensions – and obviously there are – that they be reduced.”
”We are mindful that activities around Kashmir could create issues in that part of the region, particularly as we’re conducting our operations in Afghanistan,” Bush said after meeting in the Oval Office with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Monday’s action in Kashmir followed a terrorist bombing there Oct. 1 that killed about 40 people. It left U.S. officials worried that India and Pakistan would turn their attention on each other instead of cooperating in the global counterterrorism effort.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said that before U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan began Oct. 7, she, Bush and Powell called many top Indian and Pakistani officials to emphasize the importance of ”not having a flare-up” over Kashmir.
”There’s a lot of diplomatic infrastructure in place to try to tamp this down,” Rice told reporters.
In his separate meetings with Musharraf and Vajpayee, Powell also was expected to discuss U.S. military ties with both Pakistan and India. In India, that could mean an expansion of an existing U.S. military training program. The program for Pakistan cannot resume until Congress eases sanctions.
The U.S. Senate passed legislation Oct. 4 that would effectively remove a ban on foreign aid to Pakistan imposed after the 1999 military coup. The House is to vote Tuesday. Last month, Bush lifted economic and military sanctions levied on Pakistan and India after they tested nuclear devices in 1998, but it takes congressional action to waive the ban on foreign aid.
Powell was also planning to discuss Afghanistan’s future. On the plane, Powell suggested it may take time before the Taliban is driven from power. He urged the United Nations to play a major role in ensuring the next government is as representative as possible.
Musharraf, in an interview with USA Today and CBS Radio, said he would tell Powell the United States should target Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar before going after bin Laden.
”It could be over in one day if you take out Mullah Omar and his leadership. Once you’ve done that, the campaign is over,” Musharraf said.
Security was heavy as Powell undertook his first foreign mission since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
It was just after dark when Powell and his party landed at a military airport next to Islamabad’s main commercial airport. To limit visibility of the aircraft, all shades were drawn several minutes before touchdown.
The State Department withheld details of Powell’s arrival time and activities, recognizing the fierce opposition of many Pakistanis to their government’s cooperation in efforts to hunt down bin Laden and his associates.
Thousands of shops around Pakistan were shuttered in response to a general strike call by Muslim leaders opposed to Pakistan’s support for U.S. airstrikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan.
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