Musharraf confident that war with India can be averted

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For the first time in the present standoff with India, President General Pervez Musharraf said today that he is confident war can be avoided but warned that Pakistan would respond strongly to any attack.

"I am confident that ... there won't be a war. We don't war," Musharraf told a gathering of Pakistan's top clerics in the federal capital. "But if war is imposed on us, we are ready to ... fight with all our might."

"There should be no doubt that the army has the capability and power not just to defend the country but also to counterattack," he said, calling Pakistan's military strength a "guarantee of peace."

Musharraf's remarks came as US Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on a mission to reduce tensions that last month led the two nuclear­armed neighbors to deploy more than a million troops on their common border.

The buildups followed an attack on December 13 on Indian Parliament that left 14 people dead and which New Delhi blames on two Pakistan­based Islamic militant groups and Pakistan's spy agency. Pakistan denies involvement.

Powell, too, said he believed India and Pakistan were pulling back from the brink of war, in comments in the Indian capital.

"I think we are on a path that could lead to the restoration of dialogue," Powell said. "But it will take further action before we can really start walking down that path more aggressively."

India has demanded that Pakistan hand over 20 men accused of terrorist acts in India. Musharraf has said he would never hand over Pakistanis, but left open the possibility that some of the 14 Indians on the list could be extradited.

"He doesn't rule out appropriate action against those non­Pakistanis who are on that list of 20," Powell said, adding that "more information was given to them and to us."

"We hope that President Musharraf will examine all the information and do what is the appropriate thing to do in the case of each one of those 20."

In Washington, US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with India's Defense Minister George Fernandes on Thursday, and both expressed hope for a resolution to the month-long standoff.

"Against the backdrop of recent developments I have reason to believe that sooner or later these issues will now be on the way to resolution," Fernandes said.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, who addressed the press conference with Powell, said India "welcomed" a crackdown by Musharraf on Islamic extremists but was still waiting for more action on the ground. Only then, he said, would New Delhi consider pulling back troops from the 1,690­mile border between India and Pakistan.