Decreasing Tensions With Pakistan, India Allows Pakistani Overflights

In a step back from the brink of war, India said Monday it would allow aircraft from nuclear-armed rival Pakistan to resume flights over Indian air space — but there was still no word on sending an Indian envoy back to Islamabad.

Pakistan quickly welcomed a "step in the desired direction," and urged India to withdraw its military "back to peacetime positions."

India's announcement fell well short of the expectations for conciliatory gestures it might offer to defuse the crisis. Western diplomats have hinted more will likely follow.

New Delhi imposed the air space restrictions following a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13. It relaxed them Monday after acknowledging cross-border incursions by Muslim militants had been reduced.

"There is some fall in infiltration, but difficult to say if it is a definite trend," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao said.

India made no mention of any dialogue with Pakistan — which Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has sought throughout the six-month standoff.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has insisted on seeing an end to cross-border terrorism by Muslim militants before the two sides can talk peace. The militants want the disputed province of Kashmir to be independent or merged with Islamic Pakistan.

Rao insisted India's reopening of its air space was "not a small step."

But it was less than many had anticipated, leaving other retaliatory measures imposed by India still in place. India charged that Pakistan's spy agency had backed the attack on Parliament, and although Islamabad denied it, the traditional rivals were soon thrust onto a warlike footing.

New Delhi said nothing Monday about sending an ambassador back to Islamabad, and it did not indicate it would redeploy five warships from the Arabian Sea, near Pakistan, back to the Bay of Bengal — the other side of the subcontinent.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration welcomed India's decision to allow the resumption of Pakistani flights over its airspace as a step toward easing tensions.

"Armies on both sides remain mobilized, however, and both sides need to continue to seek to lower tension," he said. He said the United States was heartened by reports that additional measures are being considered to lower the threat of an armed conflict.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons that India's navy was moving warships back to port now that both sides had taken the "first steps in the right direction."

An Indian navy spokesman, Cmdr. Rahul Gupta, said the five warships, which had been dispatched closer to Pakistan, were not being sent back to India's eastern waters.

Straw said he also understood India was naming a new ambassador to Pakistan. Indian officials declined to confirm the appointment.

India cleared the way for Pakistan International Airlines to fly across Indian air space, cutting flight times to destinations such as Bangladesh. But Rao said the Pakistani carrier could not immediately resume flights to India.

Pakistani government jets, such as those carrying dignitaries, could also fly over India.

"All I can say at the moment is that it is a step in the desired direction," Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Khan said in Islamabad.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said India should continue "on the path of logic" and "withdraw the offensive army and air force formations from Pakistan's borders, and take them back to peacetime locations."

Sattar spoke in Abu Dhabi, where he was traveling with Musharraf, according to Pakistan's state-run news agency.

Rao declined to say what India might do next, but added the government will keep watch for any terrorists sneaking onto its territory from Pakistan's side.

"The assessment will continue — it's not that we have stopped our assessments," she said.

Musharraf told the leadership in New Delhi via a U.S. envoy last week that the infiltration of Indian territory by Muslim militants would not be tolerated.

The American diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, said after visiting both capitals he believed India would send some diplomats back to Islamabad and might make a conciliatory military gesture.

India reopened its air space to Pakistan just before Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to travel to New Delhi and Islamabad in the latest diplomatic initiative to end the war threat.

Troops massed along the so-called Line of Control that divides Kashmir exchanged mortar fire Monday.

Shelling killed two people and injured three Monday in Trewa, 20 miles west of Jammu, the winter capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state, police spokesman Subhash Raina said. An Indian soldier was wounded by a mortar shell that hit about 10 miles north of Jammu, Raina said.

On the Pakistani side, police said a 16-year-old girl was killed by Indian shelling in the village of Khoi Ratta, about 25 miles south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

At least 16 people were injured elsewhere on the Pakistani side, officials said.

Despite the easing of tensions, a Pakistani military commander said Monday the situation along the Line of Control remains "highly volatile and explosive."

"Both armies still remain eyeball to eyeball," Brig. Iftikhar Ali Khan said.