Tensions with India ease slightly as Pakistan arrests militant

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India said today that it was encouraged by Pakistan's arrest of the leader of an Islamic militant group accused of plotting the attack on India's Parliament, but still demanded the arrest of another 20 suspected terrorists.

Hafiz Saeed, who until last week was the leader of Lashkar–e–Tayyaba, was arrested yesterday in Islamabad, said Aziz Ahmed Khan, a spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry.

Mr Khan said Saeed was charged with making inflammatory speeches and inciting violence. He said Islamabad would continue to call for diplomatic means to end the stand–off between the two South Asian nuclear rivals.

"The ball is India's court," he said. "If the war is thrust on Pakistan, its armed forces and people would retaliate."

The arrest of Saeed comes at a pivotal time in tense relations between India and Pakistan and there were tentative signs that the two nuclear powers might be moving toward talks to ease tensions along their 1,500 shared border.

India blames Pakistan's spy agency of sponsoring suicide attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 December. 14 people were killed, including five militants whom New Delhi claims were Pakistanis and India claims two Pakistan–based militant groups – Lashkar–e–Tayyaba and Jaish–e–Mohammed – orchestrated the attack.

In Delhi, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said India was encouraged by Saeed's arrest, but that it was not enough: "If the information is confirmed, it's a step forward in the right direction. We want Pakistan to pursue it vigorously until cross–border terrorism is eliminated."

Later, India delivered to the Pakistan High Commission a list of 20 suspected terrorists in Pakistan that it wants Islamabad to hand over to India for questioning.

The names on the list include Dawood Ibrahim, chief suspect in the 1993 blast of the Stock Exchange and Air India building in Bombay; Masood Azhar, a terrorist suspect released from an Indian prison in exchange for the release of hostages aboard an Indian Airlines aircraft hijacked on Christmas Day 1999; and those allegedly involved in terrorism in Punjab and Jammu–Kashmir states.

No deadline was given for the handing–over of the suspects, but India expected action "as soon as possible," said foreign ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao.

Meanwhile, cross–border shelling continued, leaving two Indian soldiers dead. Nine militants and one soldier were also killed near Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu–Kashmir state.

Three of the eight militants killed in a raid on a hide–out near Srinagar were Pakistanis, Inspector General of Police K. Rajendra told the AP.

Human rights activists say the number of dead and missing is at least 60,000 and blame many of the deaths on Indian security forces who lash out at the Muslim population in retaliation.

India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring and funding the separatists, a charge that Islamabad has repeatedly denied.

Pakistan says India has offered no evidence that Pakistan was involved in the Parliament assault and is fabricating the charges to malign the secessionist movement in Kashmir.

Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee were scheduled to travel to Nepal later in the week for a summit of South Asian leaders.

While Musharraf has said he was willing to meet with Vajpayee on the sidelines of the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Indian prime minister has so far declined.

Last week, Pakistan arrested Jaish–e–Mohammad's leader, Maulana Masood Azhar, and the government said he remained in custody Monday. Meanwhile, 22 followers of Lashkar–e–Tayyaba and Jaish–e–Mohammed were arrested in southern Pakistan overnight, said Tariq Jamil, deputy inspector general of police in Karachi.