India-Pakistan meeting unlikely

Dirk Beveridge,NEW DELHI, India, AP

As Indian and Pakistani leaders headed to a regional summit where they aren’t likely to talk peace — or even talk at all – India’s defense minister said Sunday his nation won’t be “impulsive” in the crisis that threatens to put them at war.

Some Western diplomats and U.N. officials have left India and Pakistan in the past few days amid concerns that the standoff, punctuated by daily shelling and gunfire across the border, could escalate into war between the nuclear-armed rivals.

But Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes, in a tearful speech to a military conference in Singapore, said Sunday that India would neither be “impulsive” with Pakistan nor weak in “the war against terrorism, the same terrorism which hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

Fernandes reiterated India’s pledge to avoid first use of nuclear weapons.

Pakistan, which has a smaller military, has not ruled out a first nuclear strike, although Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf told CNN on Saturday that “any sane individual” would ensure that any conflict would not go nuclear.

“There is no way India will ever use a nuclear weapon other than as a deterrent. We stand by our nuclear doctrine,” Fernandes said. “India will not get drawn into a nuclear arms race.”

Musharraf has said for months he wants dialogue with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but Vajpayee says India first must see a stop to terrorist attacks by Islamic militants crossing into the Indian part of the disputed province of Kashmir. Both South Asian rivals claim the Himalayan region in its entirety.

Musharraf made no public comments as he left Islamabad on Sunday for the regional summit of 16 leaders — from countries ranging from Egypt to mainland China — to be held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, from Monday through Wednesday. Musharraf was accompanied by Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar and Information Minister Nisar Memon.

Musharraf was to arrive in Almaty on Monday after stopping overnight in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where he insisted Pakistan did not want to go to war over Kashmir.

“Pakistan will not start a war,” Musharraf told reporters. “We support solving the conflict through peaceful means.”

Musharraf said he would “meet anywhere and at any level” and wanted one-on-one talks with Vajpayee, but “if he doesn’t want to, I will not insist.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has hoped the summit could help pull India and Pakistan away from their war footing.

Musharraf and Vajpayee have indicated they would meet with Putin and officials from other worried nations trying to prevent war. But India has said talks with Pakistan are not possible unless it sees proof that cross border terrorism is being stopped.

“There is no plan for talks,” Vajpayee said as he departed from New Delhi. “If we see the result on the ground of Gen. Musharraf’s statement, we shall certainly give it a serious consideration.”

Although India says Islamic militants crossing the border from Pakistan have carried out terror attacks, including a deadly assault on the Indian Parliament in December that provoked the latest crisis, Musharraf has insisted he is cracking down.

Musharraf disputes India’s contention that Pakistan actively helps the militants, saying Pakistan provides only moral and diplomatic support for Kashmiris, most of them Muslims, who want either independence or a merger with Islamic Pakistan. Musharraf has called their campaign a “genuine freedom struggle.”

Fresh mortar and artillery fire broke out Sunday across the line that divides Kashmir.

An early morning barrage from the Pakistan side killed a 20-year-old woman and wounded five other civilians, said witnesses in the village of Garkhal, about 30 kilometers north of Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu-Kashmir state.