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Tensions over Kashmir easing 'a little', says US envoy

Richard Armitage, the US deputy secretary of state, met Indian leaders yesterday and emerged to say that tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours, close to war, were "a little bit down" but there was "still a risk of war".

Mr Armitage, who flew to Delhi from Islamabad yesterday morning, is the latest senior officials from American or Britain to travel from the one capital to the other, attempting to stop India and Pakistan going to war. India refuses to resume the dialogue with Pakistan until what it calls cross-border terrorism from Pakistan-controlled territory into Indian-controlled Kashmir ceases. But India also refuses to allow foreign countries or agencies to mediate.

The two armies have been mobilised for six months. Pressure on Pakistan's leader, Pervez Musharraf, to stop infiltration from his side into Indian territory has been intense since 14 May, when a suicide attack in Kashmir killed more than 30 people at an Indian army camp, including 22 army wives and children.

Reports from Indian military sources say that detected infiltration has dwindled to nothing in the past two weeks, giving hope that General Musharraf has been successful in cracking down on the Islamic radicals in his backyard. But to take the process to the point where India feels able to begin diplomatic confidence-building measures, leading to military de-escalation, requires that India be confident that the infiltration has ceased permanently – that it is more than a blip, or a tactical pause.

For this reason diplomatic efforts at present are concentrated on finding ways of monitoring infiltration that are acceptable to both sides. At a conference in Kazakhstan earlier this week, the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, proposed joint Indo-Pakistani patrols along the Line of Control, the de facto Kashmir border, for this purpose. The idea was greeted coolly by the Pakistani side, and diplomats in Delhi said that such patrols could not begin until the two sides were talking to one another and had begun to reduce their forces.

The Independent reported on Thursday that joint Anglo-American border patrols were to be suggested, but the idea was quickly rejected by the Indians. Yesterday Mr Armitage, who had been expected to offer the idea, described it to journalists as "far-fetched".

Meanwhile, in response to strong advice from their diplomatic missions, Western nationals continued to stream out of India and Pakistan yesterday.

Most Indian residents seem far from convinced that a potentially catastrophic war is imminent, and life in the capital goes on exactly as normal. In Bombay, however, a civil defence drill was carried out for the first time, with mock victims of an aerial attack being winched to safety. Sirens will sound across the city on Monday, to begin familiarising citizens with air-raid procedures.

Although India has been at war for most of the 55 years of its independence, all its wars have been fought on the border. India's urban residents have no experience of being bombed.

Likewise they have not been subject to the sort of awareness campaigns about the dangers of nuclear attack that have been normal in western Europe since the 1950s.

In Kashmir yesterday, five Indian and three Pakistani villagers were killed by cross-border shelling, while at least seven Pakistani soldiers were killed by Indian fire in Poonch.

Fergal Keane, page 18