Sharif peace offer divides Pakistan

PAKISTAN'S PRIME Minister appeared to have bought peace with India yesterday, at the cost of harmony at home.

After Nawaz Sharif's hastily arranged meeting with President Bill Clinton in Washington, the premier announced that Pakistan would "appeal and use its influence" to persuade guerrillas who have been waging war with India for the past two months to give up their struggle.

The Pakistani opposition's condemnation came fast and furious. From the United States, Benazir Bhutto, who chairs the Pakistan People's Party, said there would be civil war in the country if the army was removed from Kargil.

Her prediction echoed the view of Hamid Gul, a retired director-general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the powerful intelligence agency, that if the mujahedin fighting in Kargil were forced to withdraw "they would head straight to Islamabad [the capital] ... and it would lead to civil war."

Other angry voices weighed in, telling Mr Sharif "not to come home" and warning that he would face "a hostile reception" if he did so. The opposition consensus appeared to be that Mr Sharif had thrown away a golden opportunity to solve the Kashmir problem.

The leader of the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-i-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, said there was "no moral justification" for withdrawal from Kargil and that instead "America should compel India to solve the Kashmir crisis". Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, made the same point.

The Indian government's only official response to Mr Sharif was to reiterate that "Pakistan's armed intrusion and aggression has to be vacated". The spokesman also said that there would be no room for third-party involvement in a revived Indo-Pakistan negotiating process.

Nawaz Sharif's sudden "air-dash", to Washington followed weeks of pressure from the United States and other Western countries on Pakistan to withdraw its forces, or the forces it is sponsoring, from Indian territory. Yet the timing of his visit was hard to fathom. President Clinton had already assured Pakistan that the US would not seek to link the $100m due soon from the IMF to a Pakistani withdrawal. The money is the next instalment in a huge and vital loan to the debt-strapped country.

Despite the criticism Pakistan has incurred, India is in a bigger fix militarily, with some 60,000 troops believed to have been committed to the battle, and fighting against immense odds to remove the guerrillas, who appear to have been dug in for many months.

With a general election pending in September, the Indian government needs desperately to solve the Kargil crisis before the Himalayas' early and murderous winter makes conventional fighting impossible. The ruling coalition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), also needs a clear victory to take to the hustings. On Sunday, India announced that its forces had seized Tiger Hill, an important enemy position high above the village of Drass, after 13 hours of fighting.

But despite Indian jubilation, the success was not seen as the prelude to a speedy Indian victory. "It's a good local success," said one Western defence analyst, "but there's a lot more work to do." The number of guerrillas India claims are present on its side of the ceasefire line remains constant at about 900.

The big disappointment for Pakistan is that while committing his side to a withdrawal, Mr Sharif has had no success in persuading Mr Clinton thatAmerica should act as a mediator in the Kashmir crisis. Mr Clinton has absorbed the lesson that for India, talk of third-party intervention in Kashmir is the blackest sacrilege.

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