Pakistan seeks monitors along border in Kashmir

International observers urged as tensions build with India over region

May 21, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - After four days of increasingly heavy artillery duels, Pakistan made a bid to defuse its deadly standoff with India yesterday by calling for the placement of international monitors on the border in the disputed Kashmir region.

The offer, made at a news briefing by Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan, came amid renewed denials of Indian charges that Pakistan has allowed separatist rebels to infiltrate the Indian-occupied portion of Kashmir, where there has been a sharp upsurge in attacks by Islamic militants seeking to wrest the Himalayan region from Indian control.

Two Indian soldiers were killed and six wounded in attacks yesterday.

On the Pakistan side of the Line of Control, which separates nearly 1 million men mobilized by the two countries' armies, border villages were evacuated yesterday after 10 people were reportedly killed over the weekend as the two countries' forces pounded each other's positions with mortars and heavy machine-gun fire.

"We are ready for the deployment of independent international observers on both sides of the Line of Control to see for themselves there is no cross-border activity taking place," Khan said. The spokesman also urged India to accept a dialogue with Pakistan and said that the international community must play a bigger role in defusing tensions between the two bitter, nuclear-armed rivals.

Pakistan has sought to convey an image of moderation for several days now, scarcely reacting, for example, to the expulsion of its ambassador to New Delhi on Saturday.

Pakistan has been on the diplomatic defensive over Kashmir since the last near-war between the two countries in 1999, when Pakistani forces captured territory traditionally held by India at Kargil, sparking fierce battles and reportedly leading to preparations by Pakistan for nuclear war.

Foreign diplomats say, moreover, that with India's political class giving vent to increasingly bellicose sentiments, Pakistani leaders have grown quietly worried that a full-blown war with its much bigger and better-armed neighbor would leave them with few options between outright defeat and the threat or use of nuclear weapons.

"The frightening thing is that the Pakistanis are so weak on the conventional side as a result of all the sanctions these last 10 years or so," said a senior Western diplomat who has recently served in South Asia.

"They don't have nearly as many fighter planes, tanks or even men as India does," the diplomat said. "They red-line use of their nuclear weapons pretty strictly, but we don't know where the red lines lie. At a certain point, if it is an all-out war, they will use them."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Washington has nurtured a strong alliance with Pakistan in the war on terror, but it has also used the closer relations to press Islamabad to end its sponsorship of groups in Kashmir that carry out terrorist attacks against Indian troops stationed there.

Diplomats are divided in their assessments of how much actual change there has been in Pakistan's support for Kashmiri militant groups. In a widely praised national address in January, President Pervez Musharraf declared that no organization would be allowed to indulge in terrorism "behind the garb of the Kashmiri cause."

But since then, militants who were arrested in a major sweep have mostly gone free, and as the attacks by Islamic separatists have increased after the melting of the snow in the mountain passes of Kashmir, India has asserted that nothing has changed.

Assistant Secretary of State Christina B. Rocca, who visited the two countries in an effort to ease tensions last week, sent a sharp message of implicit criticism to Pakistan about its role in Kashmir. She called attacks by radical Islamic groups, like the one May 14 that killed 35 Indians, mostly the wives and children of soldiers, just the type of barbarism the international war on terrorism is determined to stop.

One Western diplomat said that Musharraf, an army chief of staff who presided over the 1999 battle for Kargil and whose career has been closely associated with the Kashmiri separatists' cause, had stopped short of an aggressive effort to stamp out cross-border incursions.

"These militants are not automatons, and the Pakistanis cannot simply snap their finger and make this all come to a halt," the diplomat said. "Still, I cannot conceive of the army effectively stopping the separatist action because those militants represent in Pakistani eyes their leverage over India. I just don't see them gutting the militants as opposed to putting the occasional squeeze on them."

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