India suggests strengthened ties in Kashmir

Musharraf to respond during today's talks

April 17, 2005|By Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi | Paul Watson and Mubashir Zaidi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW DELHI, India - India proposed seven steps to improve ties across the heavily fortified front line dividing Kashmir yesterday as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made his first visit here since a bitter summit four years ago.

Musharraf is set to hold talks on the Kashmir dispute and other issues with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today after attending a cricket match between India and Pakistan in the Indian capital.

The Indian proposals include setting up several meeting points along the divide to reunite families, increasing bus service and communication links, renewing trade and taking steps to promote tourism in the long-disputed territory.

Musharraf's response is expected in his meeting with Singh today, after which the two leaders plan to issue a joint statement, according to Indian officials. In the past, Pakistan has been wary of measures that it fears will make it easier for India to divide Kashmir permanently. The Pakistani leader's first stop yesterday was in the western state of Rajasthan, where he visited the Sufi Muslim shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer.

"We pray here that the coming times will see improved ties and an atmosphere of peace between India and Pakistan," said Musharraf, who visited the shrine with his wife, Sehba. "We pray that the two nations will grow and prosper, as will the people of both nations, which will be possible only in an environment of peace."

Musharraf repeatedly has called on India to move quickly toward a negotiated solution to the 57-year dispute over Kashmir, which has caused two of three wars between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

But India prefers a more gradual process of improving trade, travel and cultural links, while pressing Pakistan to end any support for militants who continue to battle Indian security forces in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The most significant of those steps came last week when bus passengers from India and Pakistan crossed the front line dividing Kashmir for the first time since partition in 1947.

As Musharraf spoke of reconciliation in India, police in Pakistan detained Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of exiled opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and arrested thousands of members of their Pakistan People's Party, including several top officials.

Pakistani police took Zardari into what they called "protective custody" on his arrival at Lahore airport from Dubai, where he was visiting his wife. Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has threatened to jail Bhutto, a former prime minister, on corruption charges if she returns to Pakistan.

Late yesterday, thousands of Zardari's supporters remained in custody, party officials said. At least 15,000 party workers and leaders have been detained in recent days, according to party spokesman Nazir Dhoki.

Police also beat journalists and party leaders accompanying Zardari on the flight, and for three days prevented party supporters from taking trains to Lahore for a homecoming rally.

Zardari was freed in November last year after eight years of detention on charges of corruption.

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told reporters in Peshawar that Zardari is free and there is no restriction on his movements. Sherpao said the government is only protecting Zardari, whom many Pakistanis see as the likely successor to his wife as opposition leader.

Earlier, in a speech by telephone to a gathering of PPP supporters in Lahore, Zardari said that his party did not want a confrontation with the government.

"But they have created a situation under which we have no other option but to launch street agitation," he added. "We will launch a movement to fill jails."

Musharraf, on the eve of his trip to India, described Indian leader Singh as a sincere person who wanted to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Like Indian officials, Musharraf said he did not expect a breakthrough at today's meeting with Singh, but the Pakistani leader suggested India is moving toward resolving the crisis.

The tone of Musharraf's current visit is more measured than during a failed summit in 2001. That summit was followed by a militant attack on India's Parliament that almost provoked a fourth war between the nations, which now have nuclear arms.

An agreement nearly was reached at the 2001 summit to settle the Kashmir conflict, but the effort collapsed at the last minute amid allegations of betrayal from both sides.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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