Powell urges fair vote in Kashmir

U.S. official seeks to avert India-Pakistan war

July 29, 2002|By Robin Wright | Robin Wright,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called on Pakistan and India yesterday to avert war by ensuring that fall elections in disputed Kashmir are free, fair and devoid of violence as a "first step" leading to a formal dialogue between the two nuclear powers.

Powell specifically appealed to India to free Kashmiri political prisoners so they can participate as candidates or voters in the polling scheduled by mid-October. He also said international observers should be allowed to monitor elections in the disputed Himalayan region.

The secretary then called on Pakistan to follow through on a promise made last month to permanently end all infiltration by Muslim extremists into Kashmir.

After talks in New Delhi and Islamabad, the first stops in a weeklong, eight-nation Asia tour, Powell said he was encouraged. "Everyone is focused on the need to get tensions down and ensure that it doesn't start over again," he said.

The United States is looking at the election for Kashmir's state parliament as a means to address the major concerns of both nations - greater political autonomy for Muslim Kashmiris living under the rule of Hindu-dominated India, and an end to terrorist attacks by Muslim militants against India.

"Elections can be a first step in a broader process that begins to address Kashmiri grievances and leads India and Pakistan back to dialogue," Powell said yesterday at a news conference in New Delhi.

Powell began the day in India, where he urged Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other top leaders to ensure that the Kashmir poll is judged to be credible by Kashmiris and the outside world.

"Moderate elements should be encouraged. There should be the release of those who have been detained who can play a positive role in generating turnout," Powell said.

India has jailed about two dozen political separatists who do not support violence, including the leader of a prominent Muslim political party, according to U.S. officials. Without their participation, many Kashmiris might boycott the polls, fueling extremism, U.S. officials fear.

India has balked at allowing organized monitoring of the election, the first in Kashmir since 1996, although it said it might permit some individuals to witness the voting.

Without open participation and sufficient international observers, Powell warned that the outside world might not "judge the elections in a proper way and an opportunity may have been lost."

Powell flew to Islamabad yesterday afternoon for talks with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf about reining in Muslim extremists who have used Pakistan for supplies and to cross into Kashmir.

Musharraf denied suggestions from India that he has failed to follow through on his June promise to clamp down on extremists.

Powell said the United States was unable to verify the claims of either side, although he said incursions had continued.

Early this morning, Powell arrived at Bangkok, Thailand, for an 18-hour stay, during which he will confer with senior government officials and visit King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Robin Wright writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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