ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A top American diplomat Thursday challenged India to match Pakistan's pledge not to start a war, as shelling persisted across the frontier in disputed Kashmir and at least 14 people were killed in fighting.
"President [Pervez] Musharraf has made it very clear that he is searching for peace, that he won't be the one to initiate war," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told reporters after a nearly two-hour meeting with the Pakistani leader.
Armitage said he would be looking for "the same type of assurance" when he travels Friday to New Delhi for talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher joined Armitage in calling for India to promise not to provoke war. Boucher also said the United States would continue efforts to verify that movement by Pakistan-based insurgents into Indian-controlled territory had ceased as Musharraf maintains.
Armitage also said Musharraf "expressed his absolute determination" to continue support for the U.S. military effort against Al Qaeda terrorists. Last week Pakistani authorities moved some troops from the Afghan border as the Kashmir crisis deepened.
Large numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed hiding along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The Armitage mission took on added significance after Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to arrange a private meeting between Musharraf and Vajpayee this week during a regional summit in Kazakhstan.
Armitage was the latest international visitor to attempt mediation to end the crisis between the nuclear-armed South Asian rivals. The threat of a third war over Kashmir flared again in December when Islamic extremists, fighting Indian rule in the divided Himalayan enclave, attacked the Parliament building in New Delhi. India claimed the extremists were backed by Pakistan, a charge the Pakistanis denied.
After the attack, both countries rushed hundreds of thousands of troops to their border. Vajpayee refuses to withdraw his forces or meet with Musharraf until Pakistan shuts down rebel training camps and stops the flow of insurgents into Kashmir, which is claimed by both countries.
The crisis has led to fears that India may launch attacks against the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan to crush the insurgents, prompting fears one country or the other might use nuclear weapons.
Despite signs of diplomatic progress, violence continued along the tense Kashmir frontier. Pakistani officials said six people were killed and 13 wounded on their side of the boundary. One civilian was reported injured by shelling in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Eight others — three soldiers, four insurgents and one civilian — were also killed in separate gunbattles on the Indian side, authorities said. The dead included Mohammed Rafiq Lone, leader of the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul Jehad-i-Islami, a small insurgent group.
In Washington, a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some artillery positions on both sides have been knocked out in cross-border shelling.
However, he said Pakistani and Indian tanks have stayed back from the border, suggesting heavy ground combat is not imminent. Air activity — primarily helicopters — has picked up, the official said.
India has about 250,000 troops and 1,500 artillery pieces on its side of the boundary in Kashmir, the official said. Pakistan has about 180,000 troops and 600 guns across the confrontation line. India also has more fighter aircraft and helicopters.
President Bush telephoned both Musharraf and Vajpayee on Wednesday to urge them to "choose the path of diplomacy." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will deliver the same message when he visits both countries next week.
After his meeting with Musharraf, Armitage appeared upbeat, telling reporters he was "very heartened" by the Pakistani leader's commitment toward a peaceful solution.
Musharraf "made it clear to me he wants to do everything he can to avoid war, and I think that's a very good basis on which to proceed," he said.
That message, however, was not much different from many public statements issued by Pakistani officials, including Musharraf, in recent weeks.
U.S. officials, agreeing with Vajpayee, have said the key to resolving the crisis is for Musharraf to stop infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir and close insurgent training camps. For years the militants were supported by Pakistan's intelligence service.
Armitage said Musharraf repeated that cross-border incursions into Indian-Kashmir have stopped, a claim the Indians have questioned. In January, Musharraf banned a number of radical Islamic groups and pledged Pakistan would not be a country that allowed the export of terrorism.
"We are looking for that to hold over the long term," Armitage said. "We are discussing all sorts of monitoring mechanisms, without any prejudices one way or the other."
On Wednesday, Vajpayee offered to set up joint patrols along the Line of Control in Kashmir to verify whether infiltration had ceased. Pakistan said the proposal was unlikely to work in the current tense climate and represented nothing new.
Armitage said he would discuss that proposal with Indian officials in New Delhi. Pakistan has suggested that a small U.N. monitoring force already in place be expanded. India has refused that option.
With tensions in Kashmir still high, more civilians have been fleeing their homes within range of Indian artillery.
"There is no life here," said Mohammed Alam, who lives in the town of Chakothi. "We are passing a very, very difficult time. It's a warlike situation for us here. ... There's no sign the situation is getting better because both sides are sticking to their guns."