Blair arrives in Bangladesh urging calm in the region

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair began a visit to the Indian subcontinent today, hoping to promote calm in the troubled region.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw said the Prime Minister's mission to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan had been arranged long before the current crisis and he tried to dampen expectations that Mr Blair will be able to broker a peace deal over the contested region of Kashmir.

Mr Blair flew into the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, urging calm and restraint. He said there would be "enormous problems" for the whole world if current tensions between India and Pakistan got "out of hand".

But he cautioned against pinning hopes on his six-day visit to the region bringing peace, as both countries appeared set on continuing their military build-up.

Violent clashes continued yesterday as suspected Islamic militants launched another deadly attack in Kashmir, killing a policeman and wounding 24 other people.

And, after three days in which tensions had eased marginally, India again turned up the volume of bellicose rhetoric against its neighbour. At a state election meeting in Lucknow, the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, reminded supporters of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that "the whole world" had ostracised India after it tested nuclear weapons in 1998. "We will defend ourselves with whatever weapons we have," he declared. "If those who attack us die in the process, we cannot be blamed."

Yesterday's attack, in which suspected Islamic militants set off two grenades, took place outside the legislature in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. The explosions happened close to the spot where nearly 40 died during a fidayeen, suicide attack, on 1 October last year. That attack triggered the current crisis between India and Pakistan which has culminated in a huge military build-up on both sides of the border.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Mr Straw said: "There is no Blair peace plan ... that the Prime Minister could or should take out of his pocket. The Kashmir dispute goes back to partition in 1947. It is essentially a bilateral dispute. It can only be resolved bilaterally.

"If there are things the Prime Minister can do which assist in developing a climate in which talks can take place, so much the better."

Robin Cook, Mr Straw's predecessor as Foreign Secretary, got his fingers burnt during an earlier trip in 1997 by offering British help in Kashmir. The offer led to India describing Britain as "a third-rate power" and largely wrecked a state visit by the Queen marking the 50th anniversary of independence.

Mr Blair will meet Mr Vajpayee and General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President, and urge the two leaders to return to peace talks abandoned last July. He will also appeal to Pakistan to continue its crackdown on the Islamic militant groups blamed for the bloody 13 December assault on the Indian parliament in Delhi.

India viewed it as an attack on the essence of the nation, as well as an attempt to exterminate its democratic leadership.

It accused two militant groups for the attack, Jaish-e-Mohammed ("Mohammed's Army") and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, (the Army of the Pure). Both are based in Pakistan and are closely related to the Taliban. India believes they are also sponsored and controlled by the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Pakistan's military intelligence agency.

India has demanded that Pakistan close down the two groups and other similar organisations, and at the weekend Pakistan arrested the founder of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, which senior Indian officials admitted was a step in the right direction.

A report from Islamabad even suggests Pakistan's president may be about to grasp the nettle as India demands. Senior officials quoted by the New York Times claim that General Musharraf has ordered the ISI to cease backing the Islamic militant groups and restrict support only to those genuinely rooted in Kashmir and fighting for the state's self-determination.

In Kathmandu, meanwhile, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, Jaswant Singh and Abdul Sattar, shook hands, smiled and even chatted in the run-up to the summit meeting off the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation that begins on Friday. But India has firmly denied that formal talks between the countries are in the offing.