Blair aims to calm tensions over Kashmir

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair warned yesterday of the risk of the armed stand-off between India and Pakistan spiralling into a wider conflict threatening world peace.

At the start of a trip to south Asia, the Prime Minister promised to bring as "strong a calming influence as possible" on the nuclear powers. They remained close to military action over the bitterly disputed region of Kashmir.

"The trip is at an opportune moment because of the tensions that exist between India and Pakistan and for the potential for that to get out of hand. As we saw from the events of 11 September, the danger is that when these events do occur they do not stop at the border of any one country," he said.

Of particular concern to Downing Street are the close links between Pakistan and China, which has supplied Islamabad with much of its arms.

The leaders and foreign ministers of India and Pakistan are now gathered in Nepal for a regional summit that begins today. The Prime Minister of India and the President of Pakistan are even reported to be staying in the same hotel.

Yet although these nuclear-armed nations stand on the brink of a possible all-out war, it appears unlikely that they will do any serious talking in Kathmandu about the issues that divide them. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, and Pervez Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, might not even meet. Mr Vajpayee said yesterday that he had no intention of meeting the Pakistani leader.

Jaswant Singh, India's Foreign Minister, said that the leaders had come to Kathmandu for the summit, not for bilateral discussions.

Mr Blair disclosed that he had discussed the developing crisis with President George Bush on Wednesday night and was travelling to the region to relay the concerns of the world over the risk of war to the two countries. He said he would be "putting the strong views on behalf of everybody in the international community''.

The present crisis erupted on 13 December when suspected Islamic militants tried to shoot their way into India's parliament building. Fourteen people died in the attack, including five militants. India claims all five were Pakistani citizens working for terrorist organisations in Pakistan connected to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, and controlled and sponsored by Pakistan's military intelligence.

Pakistan responded by saying that it wanted to see the evidence. In Kathmandu yesterday, Mr Singh said he had evidence against a number of alleged terrorists wanted in India and living in Pakistan. "This [evidence], has been shared with Pakistan," he said. "If they continue to say the same thing [ie that they need evidence], it is misleading."

In Washington, Richard Boucher, a US State Department spokesman, said: "We hope that the two sides would see this as an opportunity to make progress towards resolving their current differences and to lower tensions." But while American pressure is generally credited with nudging General Musharraf into making the only concession that has so far made a difference – arresting the founder of a militant group called Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed – there is no indication India is willing to enter serious talks.

After the arrest of Mr Saeed at the weekend, fear of an imminent descent into war abated somewhat. But the armies of both countries remain fully mobilised, close to the common border and on high alert.

Two soldiers in Indian-ruled Kashmir were killed yesterday in an ambush, and India claimed that it had killed at least six Pakistani soldiers on Wednesday in response to an increase in mortar fire from the Pakistani side.

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