Pakistan Proposes Troop Withdrawal Talks

Pakistan called for talks with India on a mutual reduction of troops along their tense border and offered on Tuesday to restore transport links cut last month because of the crisis over Kashmir.

However, India repeated its demand that Pakistan halt what the Indians call "cross-border terrorism," meaning attacks by Pakistani-based militants against Indian rule in Kashmir.

India said Tuesday that six suspected Islamic militants and a paramilitary trooper were killed during gunbattles across the cease-fire line in Kashmir. There was no comment from Pakistan.

In a statement read by Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan, Pakistan said it was willing to begin talks with India "over a phased withdrawal of troops on both sides from their forward positions to their peacetime locations."

"Once an agreement is reached, troops should be withdrawn within a specific time frame," the statement said. Once the two sides agreed on a mutual withdrawal, they could begin a "comprehensive dialogue on the Kashmir dispute as well as all other issues."

Khan also said Pakistan was willing to restore road, air and rail links that were severed last month by India after the Dec. 13 attack on its parliament. India blamed two Pakistani-based Islamic extremist groups for the attack, in which 14 people were killed.

The attack led to the biggest buildup of forces along the border between the two nuclear-armed rivals since 1971.

In New Delhi, the United News of India news agency quoted Indian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao as saying India would agree to talks only after Islamabad took concrete action against cross-border terrorism.

"There is no question of starting any dialogue unless Pakistan translated into action its commitment on suppressing terrorism," Rao said.

Tensions appeared to have eased after President Pervez Musharraf on Jan. 12 banned the two Islamic groups accused of the parliament attack and declared that Pakistan would not be a base for terrorism.

Secretary of State Colin Powell visited both countries after the speech and declared that he was encouraged that a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be reached.

Since then, however, there has been little sign of progress.

On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee demanded that Pakistan withdraw from the part of Kashmir under its control before peace talks.

"If Kashmir is the central issue, then one-third of Kashmir is occupied by Pakistan illegally," Vajpayee told a meeting in the central Indian city of Raipur.

Islamabad has called for a plebiscite in Kashmir to determine the territory's future. New Delhi rejects the proposal and calls Kashmir an integral part of its national territory.

On Tuesday, Musharraf visited Pakistani army positions along the border east of Lahore, urging troops to remain vigilant so that there can be "no misconception" about the country's defense capabilities.

"Pakistan has earned a place of distinction in the community of nations as a major strategic partner in the international coalition against terrorism," Musharraf told the troops. "But our eastern neighbor is making vain attempts to discredit it."

More than a dozen Islamic militant groups, most based in Pakistan, have been fighting since 1989 to win independence for the two-thirds of Kashmir controlled by India or to join it to Pakistan, which controls the other third.

The government says more than 32,000 people have died in the insurgency, while human rights groups say the death toll is twice that. Most of the victims are Muslim civilians in Hindu-majority India's only Muslim-majority state.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over their competing claims to all of the Himalayan region.