India cautious over Musharraf's militants ban

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The Indian and Pakistan armies remained on high alert along the 1,200km (750-mile) border yesterday despite a bold effort by Pakistan's ruler to defuse the tension that has brought the countries to the brink of war.

In Kashmir, two alleged Islamic militants carrying Dutch passports attacked a security post with knives and were killed by Indian security forces who claimed to have foiled a suicide mission. Twelve rebels have been killed in two days.

And in a move that underlined the distance between the Indian authorities and Kashmiris, Indian police detained five activists of the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, the political voice of Kashmiri separatism.

The organisation objected to the latest detentions. "The police have started arresting Hurriyat leaders at a time when the whole world was uniting to resolve political disputes," it said.

India gave a guarded response yesterday to a promise made on Saturday byPresident Pervez Musharraf to end terrorism launched from Pakistan. Jaswant Singh, India's Foreign Minister, said: "Pakistan has only stated its intention. Let it first walk the talk."

General Musharraf, who seized power in a coup two years ago, said in an address to his nationthat he would end Islamic extremism and cure the cancer he said was eating away at Pakistani society. He banned five Islamic militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, the two groups based in Pakistan most active in fighting Indian forces in disputed Kashmir. India says the groups are to blame for a suicidal attack on the Indian parliament last month that left 14 people dead.

India responded cautiously. "The lessening of tension entirely depends on steps taken inside Pakistan to operationalise what has been stated," Mr Singh said in Delhi.

President George Bush telephoned Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Indian Prime Minister, and the Pakistani leader yesterday to urge them to continue peace efforts. The two leaders had "agreed to continue to work to reduce tension in the region", a White House spokesman said.

A former adviser to the Indian government, K Subramaniam, said Pakistan could take effective action within 24 hours. "The extremists are coming across the border on contract with the ISI [Pakistan's military intelligence agency]," he said. "They are all in touch with ISI by radio. All that is needed is to start calling them back."

Indian security forces have been fighting to suppress an insurgency in Kashmir, India's only state with a Muslim majority, for 12 years. In the early years the protagonists were mostly native Kashmiris but lately they have been overshadowed by Pakistani militants. India maintains that they are trained, financed and controlled by the Pakistani government. Pakistan admits to giving them moral support only.

Pakistan has sealed the offices of the five banned groups, and continued to detain Islamic extremists. General Musharraf is likely to struggle to keep his promises, because the "Talibanisation" of Pakistan is well advanced. Religious hardliners have been growing more powerful for 30 years, since the previous general to rule the country, Zia ul-Haq, set the process in motion. In that context, the President's speech amounted to a call to counter-revolution.

Amir Munawar Hasan, a member of the fundamentalist Jamiat-e-Islami, said: "President Musharraf's speech is hogwash meant for American and Indian consumption. For the last 27 months he has been in power, he has supported the jihadi groups operating in Kashmir and described them as participating in a freedom struggle. Now he's done a complete turnaround and dubbed them terrorist organisations."

* Armed militants surrounded a busy market in India's remote Tripura state and fired on the crowd yesterday, killing 12 people and wounding 13 in the biggest attack in months, the Press Trust of India reported.

The militants of the banned National Liberation Front of Tripura escaped after the attack.The violence was not linked to the current tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The rebels strike at Tripura from neighbouring Bangladesh in their fight for a homeland for local tribes.