Pakistan Pledges to Withdraw Troops to 'Peacetime Locations'

Pakistan will withdraw hundreds of thousands of troops deployed along its border with India to their "peacetime locations," the government announced Thursday, matching a similar pledge by India.

The moves were the most concrete steps by the two South Asian nuclear rivals to reduce tension since they nearly went to war in May, and were sure to be welcomed by Washington, which counts both countries as allies.

"The government of Pakistan has decided to withdraw its forces from the Pakistan-India border to their peacetime locations," the Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement. "The pullback will commence shortly."

The ministry said the decision was made after a top-level meeting chaired by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

A senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Pakistan would withdraw 90 percent of its troops, including naval and air forces. He said the pullback would occur in phases, depending on the progress of India's phased withdrawal.

He said the army had sent 400,000 to 500,000 troops to the border, "but now we will be withdrawing them."

"It's welcome news," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Terry White. In Washington, a State Department official had earlier expressed hope that India's announcement would lead to further steps to reduce tension and move toward dialogue.

However, a spokesman for India's Foreign Ministry, Navtej Sarna, said Thursday that Pakistan's decision to match its withdrawal was still not enough to lead to talks.

"What is needed to start a dialogue with Pakistan is a complete and visible end to cross-border terrorism and we have seen no change in this," Sarna said. India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring attacks by Islamic militant groups, a charge Pakistan denies.

India and Pakistan have a long history of tension along their 1,800 mile-border, especially in the disputed Himalayan province of Kashmir. More than 1 million troops are currently deployed on both sides.

Earlier this month, Pakistan and India conducted tit-for-tat tests of medium-range nuclear-capable missiles, renewing fears of an arms race and highlighting the size of the stakes involved in their dispute.

India said Wednesday it would withdraw tens of thousands of its troops from the border with Pakistan, but none from the Line of Control, which separates the disputed region of Kashmir.

A senior Pakistani defense analyst said both sides were looking to ease tension, in part because of the difficulty of keeping their armies on high alert for such a long time.

"I think the Indians were looking for an opportunity to withdraw troops because they have been there for the last 10 months," said retired Gen. Talat Masood. "It is a good and positive development."

No details were immediately available on when the pullback would start. It was also unclear if Pakistan would remove any of its troops from the tense Line of Control, where the two armies frequently shell each other.

The rival South Asian countries have fought two wars for control of the lush, mountainous province. At least 61,000 people have died in the last 12 years of an insurgency by more than a dozen Islamic groups fighting for Kashmir's secession from India or its merger with Pakistan.

Tension between India and Pakistan has been high since a Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic groups and Islamabad's spy agency.

Pakistan and the rebel groups reject the charge, but more rebel attacks in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir again pushed the countries to the brink of war earlier this year.

The statement followed a longer one by the Foreign Ministry that called India's move a "step in the right direction." But that statement made no specific pledge to reciprocate the pullback.

"Pakistan has always stood for normal relations with India," the earlier Foreign Ministry statement said. "Pakistan has consistently called for deescalation, withdrawal by India of its forces to peacetime locations and the resumption of dialogue."

The earlier statement said Pakistan would have a "positive and timely response" to India's announced troop withdrawal, once it was implemented on the ground, but the second statement contained no such caveats.

India's announcement on Wednesday followed lobbying by European Union leaders, who pressed Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to move toward dialogue with Pakistan. In announcing the troop pullback, however, Defense Minister George Fernandes ruled out any new talks.

Fernandes said the Indian army will decide when to move the soldiers and where they will go. Indian military officers are known to favor an easing of their nation's war readiness.