Pakistan arrests leader of militant Islamist group

Delhi gives cautious welcome to detention of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba chief but hardliners in India are feared to be set on war
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The first hint that India and Pakistan might find a way out of their current stand-off without going to war came when India's Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, described the arrest in Pakistan of a leading Islamic militant as "a step forward in the right direction".

But it was rapidly followed by news that India had given Pakistan a list of 20 Pakistani terrorists wanted in India. Arun Jaitley, India's Justice Minister, said Pakistan had been told to arrest them and hand them over for trial in India. A Western diplomat in Delhi said neither India nor Pakistan had ever handed over their citizens for trial in the other country, and it was hard to imagine Pakistan complying.

The new demand raised fresh fears that hawks in the Indian government are determined to force a war. Both countries have nuclear weapons, though both have also sworn not to use them first.

Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, head until last week of a Pakistani-based militant group called Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, ("the Army of the Pure"), was arrested on Sunday night while chairing a meeting with his lieutenants in Islamabad. His group is one of two named by India as responsible for a suicidal assault on India's parliament building on 13 December that left 14 people dead.

Last week Pakistani authorities put Maulana Masood Azhar – leader of the other group named by India, Jaish-e-Mohammed – under house arrest, but Indian officials reacted sceptically, with two ministers separately terming it "a joke". They claimed that Mr Azhar, who was sprung from jail in India two years ago after his comrades hijacked an Indian airliner, was released soon afterwards. So the arrest of Mr Saeed is the first time an Indian minister has expressed any satisfaction about Pakistan's recent actions. Mr Singh was quick to make clear, however, that it was not enough. "We want Pakistan to pursue it vigorously," he said, "until cross-border terrorism is eliminated."

But the upbeat remark raised hopes that a regional summit due to start in Kathmandu on Friday may give the two countries a chance to make further progress. Mr Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Abdul Sattar, may meet on the sidelines. A more remote possibility is that the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, may also meet.

Such tentative gleams of hope, however, only emphasise the darkness of the background. India has the fourth largest army in the world, and its entire force – offensive as well as defensive, jet fighters and bombers, hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of troops – is now massed along the border.

Pakistan has matched India's mobilisation step for step, and is talking about bringing its peace-keepers back from UN service in Sierra Leone, and its border guards back from the Afghan frontier. Commentators have described this as the biggest mobilisation in the subcontinent for 15 years but a Western diplomat pointed out that the huge Brass Tacks exercise of 1987 was only an exercise; and the mountain war of summer 1999 in Kargil was tightly confined. This is the real thing, and there has been nothing like it since the war fought over Bangladesh in 1971.

It is also possible to argue that the war has already started. Yesterday at least two Indian soldiers were killed and six wounded during hours of mortar and machine-gun fire across the Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian and Pakistani-controlled sectors of Kashmir. Nine Islamic militants also died in Kashmir yesterday during clashes with Indian troops.

The arrest of Hafiz Saeed is much the boldest step that General Musharraf has taken towards meeting India's demands since 13 December. Predictably, Pakistan denied any connection to Indian anger. General Rashid Qureshi, the Pakistani leader's spokesman, said the arrest was part of "an ongoing process" to curb violence and terrorism and "has nothing to do with India".

In a sense the clampdown on militants is consistent with the policy of curbing religious extremism that General Musharraf has been pursuing since seizing power in a bloodless coup two years ago. A secular figure through and through, he has fought against entrenched interests to cut the militants' sources of cash and support, to cut their access to weapons, to bring the madrassas, the militant Islamic schools, into the educational mainstream, and to repeal a barbarous law on blasphemy. He has also removed hardliners from key positions in the ISI, Pakistan's powerful military intelligence agency.

But handing Pakistanis over to India would be political suicide. Pervez Musharraf, proud and pragmatic in equal proportions, would almost certainly prefer to go to war.