ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – In a demonstration of his government's shifting priorities, Pakistan's president on Thursday began withdrawing troops helping fight Al Qaeda terrorists on the Afghan border, and said he was considering moving them to Kashmir to face off against India.
"Our security comes first. We will use all our resources to protect our security," President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said at a news conference in Islamabad. He said his government was "very seriously contemplating moving them onto the eastern border if tensions remain as high as they are now."
The redeployment of what would likely be only a few thousand men would have virtually no impact on the balance of power in Kashmir, but it could deeply affect the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
The Pakistani troops on the Afghan border were deployed to help U.S.-led forces track down Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had taken refuge in the wild and mountainous tribal region on both sides of the frontier, and they have been involved in the arrests of several prominent Al Qaeda leaders.
In Washington, President Bush said he was sending Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the region next week to help ease tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, who have massed 1 million men along their tense border.
Rumsfeld said the United States had not seen any sign of a Pakistani withdrawal from the border with Afghanistan, and said he hoped none would be forthcoming.
"The number of Pakistani battalions that have been located along that Afghan border has not changed," Rumsfeld said. "And we hope it will not change."
But Rashid Quereshi, Musharraf's spokesman, confirmed a pullback of troops, and witnesses in the northwestern frontier area said Thursday they had seen scores of army trucks moving soldiers.
Quereshi claimed the pullback from the Afghan border, where about 1,000 additional troops were deployed less than a month ago, would not affect Pakistan's relations with the U.S.-led coalition. It was believed Pakistan had about 6,000 total troops along the Afghan border, but the government never details troop strength.
With no sign either India or Pakistan was offering a diplomatic solution in Kashmir, concern mounted about a broader military conflict.
India regularly informs the United States through diplomatic channels that it intends to go to war over Kashmir if attacks by extremists are not curtailed, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press.
But India has not advised the Bush administration how it would conduct such a conflict, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Munir Akram, repeated his country's long-stated position that it would not sign a no-first-use policy on nuclear arms. India has one.
"India should not have the license to kill with conventional weapons while our hands are tied" by removing the first-use option, Akram said at United Nations headquarters on Wednesday.
That stance was harshly criticized by Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes.
"Only those people can think about using a nuclear bomb whose thinking is not in order," he told The Associated Press. "One should not talk so loosely."
On Thursday, relentless cross-border shelling killed dozens in Kashmir, while Islamic militants attacked a police base in Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing four police officers before the insurgents were overcome and killed themselves.
At least 14 people — three Indian army soldiers and 11 civilians — were killed in overnight artillery shelling and mortar fire from the Pakistani side, Indian police said. Pakistan Television reported 14 civilians were killed in Pakistan by Indian shelling overnight. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
The new violence followed a U.S. State Department warning on Wednesday that "irresponsible elements" in India and Pakistan could spark a conflict against the wishes of both governments.
Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed a decision, meanwhile, whether to withdraw nonessential U.S. diplomats from India and to advise 60,000 U.S. citizens in the country to leave. A decision could be announced soon, a senior U.S. official said.
"The climate is very charged and a serious conflagration could ensue if events spiral out of control," spokesman Richard Boucher said.
On Thursday, Bush urged Musharraf to "live up to his word" and stop cross-border attacks in Kashmir.
"We are making it very clear to both Pakistan and India that war will not serve their interests," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. "We are part of an international coalition applying pressure to both parties."
Musharraf told reporters in Islamabad that the attempt by world leaders to avert war on the subcontinent "helps, any mediation helps. We encourage it. I am reasonably sure that such contact, indirect contact between India and Pakistan has been a good thing."
India accuses Pakistan of supporting Islamic militant groups waging an insurgency in Indian-ruled Kashmir, a Himalayan province that has been the flashpoint of two wars between the uneasy neighbors, in 1948 and 1965.
Relations between the neighbors have been troubled since independence from Britain in 1947, but tensions soared in December after a deadly terrorist attack on India's Parliament that India blamed on the Pakistan-based Islamic insurgents. Pakistan says its support for insurgents fighting in Indian-ruled Kashmir is moral and diplomatic, and denies India's claim that it funds and trains them.
Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bhihari Vajpayee will attend a summit in Kazakhstan next week, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to organize one-on-one talks. Pakistan has agreed, but India says attacks by militants crossing from Pakistan must stop first.
In New Delhi, Fernandes said India wants proof that cross-border infiltration has ended. He said as many as 3,000 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan are in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir.
U.S. and Afghan officials said they are unaware of an Al Qaeda or Taliban presence in the disputed region.
Former high-ranking Taliban members say Pakistani militant groups, such as Harakat-ul Mujahedeen and Jaish-e-Mohammed, are linked with Al Qaeda — a charge that has also been leveled by the Bush administration.
This alliance also has been blamed for attacks in Pakistan against foreigners in an attempt to destabilize the Musharraf government, which the groups revile for supporting the U.S. war on terrorism in Afghanistan.