Whispers of hope but Indian build-up continues

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The Independent Online

The armed forces of India and Pakistan entered the new year in their highest state of war readiness, with tanks, missile batteries and tens of thousands of troops massed on a border that stretches more than 900 miles from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to Ladakh in the High Himalayas.

The armed forces of India and Pakistan entered the new year in their highest state of war readiness, with tanks, missile batteries and tens of thousands of troops massed on a border that stretches more than 900 miles from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to Ladakh in the High Himalayas.

And Major General Rashid Qureshi, the spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf, said in Islamabad: "India continues to build up its capability. They have fully activated their forward bases. There is also information about naval movements. Their intentions are something that nobody would know." Another Pakistani source described the situation as "highly explosive".

Western diplomats say this is the biggest mobilisation the subcontinent has had since the Bangladesh war of 1971.

All travel links between the two countries have been severed although Pakistan International Airlines was given leave yesterday to send two passenger planes into India to bring out Pakistanis stranded after the deadline expired. Staff in the respective high commissions have been reduced by half, and the diplomatic options for breaking the impasse are few and getting fewer.

But the new year has also brought whispers of hope. The summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc) will go ahead this week in Nepal. Pakistan's Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, is already in Kathmandu. His Indian counterpart, Jaswant Singh, was expected to arrive last night, and the two prime ministers are also expected to attend. An Indian official quoted by Reuters last night ruled out talks between the two sides, but they are likely to talk informally on the sidelines of the summit.

Yesterday, the two countries also renewed a 10-year-old agreement committing them to not attacking each other's nuclear installations and facilities. The agreement is renewed every New Year's Day, and allowing yesterday's formal commitment was a welcome reminder that diplomatic civilities are still functioning.

On Monday, Indians gave a cautious welcome to the news that Pakistan had arrested Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the founder of the "Army of the Pure" (Lashkar-e-Tayyiba). The group is one of the two Islamic militant organisations India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, blames for the suicide attack on the parliament building on 13 December that killed 14 and caused an immediate military build-up. Mr Vajpayee is demanding more arrests and stricter measures, which would allow the crisis to ease.

The Indian media has reported Mr Vajpayee as saying that Pakistan must "take effective steps to stop cross-border terrorism" before peace can come. And on Monday India passed Pakistan a list of 20 alleged terrorists it required Pakistan to arrest and hand to India for trial. Last night, a senior official said that 15 of the 20 people were Indian citizens, and that the rest were charged with crimes committed in India.

But the last hope of peace has not withered away. And if the optimism survives face-to-face encounters in Kathmandu between the countries, Prime Minister Tony Blair may be see what he can do to encourage its growth during his visit to the region next week.

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