UN treads carefully in Kashmiri minefield

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INDIA may claim to detect UN Security Council backing for its position in the dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. But a gun battle on Monday night in which Indian troops shot dead four separatists only underscores how, more than half a century after Partition, the quarrel over the territory - a prime ingredient in the nuclear arms race on the subcontinent - is more intractable and dangerous than ever.

According to an Indian army spokesman yesterday, the fighting took place near the border with Pakistan, which Delhi accuses of arming and training Kashmiri separatists who want independence for the predominantly Muslim territory or unification with Pakistan. The guerrillas are the latest to die in an insurgency which has cost perhaps 25,000 lives since it began in 1990.

All of which would seem to make the United Nations resolution, passed on Saturday night, an innocuous statement of the obvious. It urges the two countries to resume dialogue and to find "mutually acceptable solutions" to address "the root causes" of the tensions between them, "including Kashmir". For Delhi, however, what matters is what wasn't there: any reference to outside mediation to resolve the dispute.

Hitherto, the UN's formal stand on Kashmir has been its resolution of August 1948, demanding that both India and Pakistan withdraw most of their troops from the territory they had fought over that year, ahead of a plebiscite administered by the UN.

Ever since, Pakistan has clung to that formula, partly out of confidence that the Muslim majority in Kashmir would vote its way in any plebiscite, and partly because it was unlikely to prevail in one-on-one talks with a more powerful neighbour. That is precisely why India rejects what it sees as outside meddling, and insists a solution must be found by the protagonists alone. Purely bilateral talks would be "futile", Pakistan's foreign minister, Gohar Ayub Khan, reiterated yesterday.

In fact it is not clear the UN has given up all aspirations to mediate a dispute arguably more likely than any other to go nuclear. Although the five permanent members of the Security Council made no explicit mention of mediation when they met last week to press India and Pakistan to drop their nuclear ambitions, the subtext told a different story.

The five - Britain, the United States, France, Russia and China - undertook to "do all they could do to facilitate a reduction of tensions", and provide "assistance, at the request of both parties, in the implementation of confidence, and security-building measures". Which sounds very much like a mediation offer which dare not speak its name.

But Kashmir is a subject where one verbal slip by a well-meaning outsider can cause an international incident.