ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan's president declared Monday that his country rejects all forms of terrorism, for the first time making no attempt to exclude Islamic militants whose conflict with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir has brought the nations to the brink of war.
The statement followed a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose visits to India and Pakistan over the past two days turned into an exercise in shuttle diplomacy aimed at defusing simmering tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals.
"Pakistan rejects terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in a statement with Blair following their meeting.
Musharraf departed from his customary practice of saying that Pakistan does not consider the Kashmiri fighters terrorists, just "freedom fighters," a distinction that Blair implied was untenable in the world climate after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States.
Pakistan has long backed militants opposed to India's rule over part of Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries and divided between them. Kashmir has sparked two of the three wars the countries have fought since independence in 1947.
India has been outraged by bloody attacks on the assembly of the Indian-ruled part of Kashmir on Oct. 1 and on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13. Pakistan has denied India's charge that it was behind militant groups who allegedly staged the attacks. Since then, the two countries have deployed thousands of troops to their border, raising fears of a new war.
"The president has given a very clear statement that he rejects terrorism in all its forms," Blair said. "It is important, therefore, that any groups sponsoring terrorism like the acts of the 1st of October and the 13th of December have no place and no support.
"And I believe that that is the position of the president and I welcome that," Blair said.
There was no immediate response to Musharraf's statement from New Delhi, where External Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao did not answer calls placed to her office and mobile phones.
Pakistani authorities have announced mass arrests of militants for the past two weeks, including the leaders and other members of two groups — Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed — which India accuses of the Dec. 13 assault on Parliament. Fourteen people were killed, including the five assailants, in the attack.
Pakistani police said Sunday that security forces arrested 42 Muslim militants in eastern Punjab province, raising the number of detainees to 300.
However, Musharraf, in an interview broadcast on Chinese Central Television, ruled out handing over 20 alleged terrorists that New Delhi wants extradited to India in connection with attacks on Indian territory. Islamabad has said that India has not provided enough evidence that the men were criminals.
If there is evidence against the suspects, "we will deal with them according to the law of our own land," Musharraf said. "We are certainly not at all considering handing over anybody to anyone."
On the border, meanwhile, hostilities continued Monday. Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged heavy artillery fire in Kashmir, and the Indian army claimed six Pakistani soldiers were killed. Other Indian officials said eight suspected militants and eight civilians were killed in separate incidents in the region.
India said its military shot down a small, unmanned Pakistani aircraft that entered Indian air space Sunday over Kashmir. Pakistan denied the claim, saying an Indian aircraft crashed and India was trying to cover it up through "baseless propaganda."
Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes on Monday ruled out reducing India's military buildup along the border.
"The troops are on the front line and, no, we are not reducing the troops," Fernandes said in Bangalore. "But we are taking several diplomatic initiatives to explain our stand to the international community and expect some action from Pakistan."
On Sunday, Blair met with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then spoke on the phone for 15 minutes with President Bush, a spokesman for Blair said.
Bush and Blair agreed terrorism should be renounced and a settlement to the India-Pakistan crisis should be negotiated, the spokesman told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Vajpayee and Musharraf twice shook hands during a weekend South Asian summit in Katmandu, Nepal, raising hopes they might prepared to negotiate a solution to their differences.
India, however, has said Pakistan needs to do more, and Vajpayee said in a speech to a banquet attended by Blair that India was prepared to take military action.