U.S. Envoy Sees Tensions Easing in India, Pakistan Standoff

Tensions between India and Pakistan have eased, but not enough to eliminate the threat of war, a U.S. envoy said Friday.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met in the evening with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a day after he saw Pakistan's president in Islamabad. And although the American diplomat expressed cautious optimism, a key stumbling block remained.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged the need for a long-term end to cross-border attacks in disputed Kashmir, Armitage told the Indians.

"That's something we hope to see translated into action," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told reporters. "We need to check whether this is a credible assurance."

While saying tensions had lessened, Armitage gave no hint of a breakthrough on his mission to try to defuse the potential conflict on the subcontinent.

"Tensions are a little bit down," he said. "I feel very good about the discussions in India. If tensions are high, there is always a risk of war. Until that situation is changed, there will be the risk."

Vajpayee did not appear before reporters with Armitage.

Meanwhile, the top U.S. military officer, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States has plans to reposition American troops now operating in and around Pakistan in the event war breaks out between India and Pakistan. Myers declined to discuss details of the plan, which had not been implemented Friday.

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh earlier insisted that India does not want war.

"We are very much committed to moving on the path of peace because to peace there is no alternative," Singh said after meeting Armitage.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on Thursday that the United States would continue efforts to verify that movement by Pakistan-based insurgents into Indian-controlled territory had ceased, as Musharraf maintains.

On Friday, Boucher told a news briefing: "In terms of what we see going on, I would say that we have growing indications that infiltration across the Line of Control is down significantly. But I'd also say we can't ... say that this change has been done on a permanent basis. And that's what President Musharraf has promised; that's what we're looking for."

But there have been no indications Washington received a commitment from New Delhi of reciprocal moves to calm the situation.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flies in next week, as several nations advised India and Pakistan to avoid a ruinous war that could turn them into international outcasts if nuclear weapons were used.

In Madrid, foreign ministers from the European Union and 10 Asian nations, including China, Japan and South Korea, urged the rivals to pull back from the brink of a war with "implications for the whole region and beyond."

Indian and Pakistani troops exchange heavy mortar and gunfire Friday, that killed at least eight civilian and injured 21 others in villages along the Line of Control dividing disputed Kashmir.

Five civilians were killed and 15 injured on the Pakistani side, Pakistan's army said, while an Indian police official put the civilian casualties on the Indian side at three. Six Indian civilians were also injured by Pakistani mortar fire.

Elsewhere in India-controlled territory, suspected Islamic militants shot and killed a police informant and a police officer, according to Tirath Acharya, an Indian Border Security Force officer.

In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, witnesses said panic-stricken residents fled to safety Friday after Indian artillery shells fell about half a mile from the city limits of Kotli, 22 miles from the Line of Control that divides Kashmir.

Police said Indian artillery fire killed three people, including two young boys, with five injured.

"My entire family has left because they fear that war has begun," said 14-year-old Mohammed Yasser.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. The latest war threat broke out in December when Islamic extremists staged a deadly attack on India's Parliament building in New Delhi.

Shelling intensified last month after a militant attack on an Indian army base killed 34 people, mostly wives and children of soldiers.

In Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Indian tanks have stayed back from the border, suggesting heavy ground combat is not imminent. Air activity — primarily helicopters — has picked up, he said.

In a sign of potential conciliation, Vajpayee suggested Wednesday the sides could establish joint patrols along the Line of Control, but he ruled out third-party monitors. Pakistan has suggested a greater role by third parties, including the United Nations.

In an apparent acknowledgment of Pakistan's stance, Singh said Friday: "It isn't as if joint patrolling is to be established tomorrow. It's evolutionary, it's an answer to the problem, and that's what one should work toward."