ALMATY, Kazakhstan – Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said Wednesday that India would consider jointly monitoring the disputed Kashmir border with its longtime rival Pakistan.
In what could be a major step to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, Vajpayee said India and Pakistan should work together to patrol the Kashmir border and verify Islamic militants were no longer crossing into Indian-controlled Kashmir to launch attacks.
"Joint patrolling can be held by India and Pakistan," Vajpayee said in a news conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where he attended an international summit. "There can be joint verification, but there is no need for third-party verification."
Vajpayee was referring to reports that Britain and the United States have offered to help monitor the Line of Control that divides the Himalayan province between the South Asian neighbors.
"We are not against dialogue, but cross-border terrorism must end," Vajpayee said. "Pakistan claims that infiltration has stopped. We want to test the Pakistani claim."
Pakistan's Foreign Office said it wanted to see the full text of Vajpayee's statement before commenting on the proposal for joint patrols.
Efforts by Russia, China and other nations failed to get Vajpayee to hold face-to-face talks with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, but Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to see progress toward such negotiations.
"In any case, both leaders expressed their interest in direct contacts, even though they still see the conditions for organizing such meetings differently, but both sides have the desire for such contacts," Putin said after meeting separately with Vajpayee and Musharraf.
"No less important, both leaders of both states underlined that they do not intend to use force to solve their problems," Putin said.
Despite the diplomatic maneuvering, some of the 1 million Indian and Pakistani soldiers posted along both sides of the 1,800-mile frontier unleashed fresh artillery and gunfire at each other in Kashmir on Tuesday.
Pakistan reported that India shelled four sectors of Kashmir, killing one civilian and injuring nine. The Pakistan army said it retaliated by destroying at least four Indian bunkers, causing some casualties among Indian soldiers.
While speaking at the Asian security conference attended by both Musharraf and Vajpayee, Putin likened their impasse over the Himalayan province to the 1961 Cuban missile crisis. Today, as then, world leaders have to take responsibility to quash the risk of nuclear war, Putin said.
Musharraf said he accepted Putin's invitation to attend possible talks in Moscow.
He said he did not know whether Vajpayee, who also met Putin, would go to Moscow for talks. But the Kremlin press service said Putin did not plan to bring Vajpayee to Moscow since the Russian leader already is scheduled to visit India in December.
Vajpayee's suggestion of joint patrols on Wednesday came one day after the Indian and Pakistani leaders sat across a long, horseshoe-shaped table and angrily blamed each other for more than five decades of conflict. The countries have fought three wars since 1947 — two of them over Kashmir, which both countries claim in its entirety.
Vajpayee reiterated his willingness to talk with Pakistan, but said there first must be a halt to cross-border terrorism in India-controlled Kashmir, such as the deadly assaults on the Indian Parliament in December and an Indian army base in Kashmir last month, which left 34 dead, mostly wives and children of army officers.
India says the terrorism is carried out by Pakistan-based Islamic militants fighting the past 12 years for Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan.
Alluding to Pakistan, Vajpayee said, "Nuclear powers should not use nuclear blackmail."
Musharraf, asked at a news conference to state Pakistan's nuclear policy and explain why it will not join India in renouncing first use of nuclear weapons, said, "The possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances."
He said, however, it would be irresponsible for a leader to discuss such things and Pakistan's "deeper policy" is for denuclearization of South Asia.
India's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, responded: "We will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. India hopes the enormity of the use of nuclear weapons is understood by the president of Pakistan."
Tensions between India and Pakistan seem to be easing slightly amid international diplomatic efforts, an Indian military spokesman said Tuesday. But it was too soon to say whether the situation would become calmer and stay that way, said P.K. Bandopadhyay, an India Defense Ministry spokesman.
"There is a little softening, but it is premature," Bandopadhyay told The Associated Press. "We are on the diplomatic path."
Secretary of State Colin Powell also said Tuesday that he has detected "a little bit of improvement" in the situation, with Pakistan offering assurances that Muslim militants are penetrating less from Pakistan into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. He said U.S. diplomats have passed on those comments to Indian officials.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Powell did not say tensions had diminished, and in fact said they were "still very high."
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld is expected in the region this weekend, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is due to visit Pakistan and India this week.
In Washington, a U.S. official told AP the State Department was due to issue a new travel warning Tuesday strongly urging the more than 60,000 Americans in India and Pakistan to depart. This is a tougher approach than past statements urging Americans to consider leaving.