Kashmir rift worsens as Powell opens Pakistan trip

Avert acts threatening terror fight, U.S. says

War On Terrorism : The World

October 16, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived here last night to hold talks about the future of Afghanistan with key ally Pakistan before traveling on today to India. But his trip was complicated by India's reporting that it had shelled Pakistani positions along the countries' border in Kashmir.

The Indian assault ended a period of relative calm between the two nuclear-armed nations and also threatened to distract Powell as the American war against Afghanistan continued into its second week.

An Indian army officer was quoted by wire services as saying soldiers used artillery, rockets and mortars to destroy 11 Pakistani positions along a cease-fire line dividing the disputed region of Kashmir. A statement from India's Army Media Center said the shelling had caused "widespread destruction." Pakistan said one person was killed and 25 were injured.

The shelling set off alarm bells in Washington as the United States quickly urged Pakistan and India to avoid conflicts that might threaten the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan's Taliban regime and suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. "I think it is very important that India and Pakistan stand down during our activities in Afghanistan, for that matter, forever," President Bush said in Washington.

Powell's arrival was preceded by sporadic strikes here as militant Islamic leaders who support the Taliban persuaded thousands of merchants to keep their shops closed.

Powell went to the capital to thank Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, for his assistance in the U.S. war to destroy bin Laden's terrorist network and to confer about organizing a government to replace the Taliban. Musharraf granted the United States permission for its warplanes to fly over Pakistani territory and also pledged intelligence and logistical support.

Before Powell arrived, a delegation representing Afghanistan's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, held discussions in Islamabad with Pakistan's foreign minister about a future government in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Meanwhile, on the plane to Islamabad, Powell said senior U.S. diplomat Richard N. Haass would become his envoy to the United Nations to discuss the shape of a new Afghan government.

During his meeting today with Powell, Musharraf is expected to repeat his request that the U.S. bombing campaign be brief to avoid increasing dissent here. He is also expected to ask for U.S. help to resolve the conflict over Kashmir.

Concern has grown in recent weeks that the war in Afghanistan could reignite Pakistan's conflict with India over Kashmir. India has accused Pakistan of backing an insurgency movement there, while Pakistan says it offers only political and diplomatic support. After meeting with Musharraf, Powell is scheduled to fly to New Delhi to confer with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Protests in Pakistan yesterday included street demonstrations in Quetta but little noticeable activity in the capital. As police stood watch across the street from a shopping center, local businessmen expressed support for Musharraf's policies and an unwillingness to close their stores at a time when the nation is struggling economically.

"We are working today," said Munawar Mugihal, 44, head of the Trader's Welfare Association in one of the capital's markets. "Our businesses are already in recession."

A poll released yesterday reported strong public backing for Musharraf's management of the crisis, which he has called the nation's worst in three decades. But the poll also found strong support for the Taliban.

The survey, conducted by a Pakistan affiliate of Gallup International, found that 51 percent of those polled supported Musharraf's handling of the situation - an increase from 32 percent three weeks ago. But 83 percent of those polled said they backed the Taliban, the militant Islamic fundamentalists who control about 90 percent of Afghan territory. Eighty-two percent described bin Laden - Washington's top suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - as a holy warrior, not a terrorist.

One analyst attributed the apparent paradox in the results to a combination of realism about Musharraf's difficult political position and anger over reported Afghan civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes. "That does create a certain amount of ambivalence towards the American campaign against Afghanistan," Rifaat Hussain, chairman of the Defense and Strategic Studies Department at Islamabad's Quaid-I-Azam University, told CNN.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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