India reopens airspace to Pakistan


India reopened its airspace to Pakistani overflights on Monday in its first step to ease a six-month standoff over Kashmir which brought the nuclear-armed rivals to the brink of war.

Despite hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough, Indian and Pakistani troops continued to exchange fire in disputed Kashmir. India’s Defense Ministry said troops fired artillery and mortar bombs at several points along the border, including the high-altitude Siachen glacier.

The reopening of the airspace came ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as part of an intense U.S. diplomatic drive to avert a conflict which some fear could escalate into the world’s first nuclear war.

India’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said other steps would follow if Islamabad took measures to act permanently against Pakistan-based Islamic militants whom New Delhi blames for attacks on Indian targets in Indian Kashmir and elsewhere.

“Our response to these measures will be sequenced. Today’s announcement should be seen as an indication of our continued monitoring of the situation, our desire for peace, because to peace there is no alternative,” she told a news conference.

Rao declined comment on media reports that India might also pull back five warships deployed on its western coast south of Pakistan and appoint an ambassador to Islamabad.

The ban on Pakistani flights over India was imposed on Jan. 1 as part of a series of diplomatic and military measures triggered by a Dec. 13 attack on India’s parliament that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

India also recalled its ambassador and later expelled Pakistan’s ambassador to New Delhi after a May 14 raid on an Indian army camp, again blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

Pakistan welcomed India’s decision to reopen its airspace, but said a lot more was needed to ease tensions between the two neighbors.

Close to a million men have been mobilized along the border, which stretches from Kashmir in the Himalayas south through desert plains to the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf has promised to stop Islamic militants crossing into Indian Kashmir to join a revolt against Indian rule there and to curb their operations inside Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

He has also condemned both the attack on India’s parliament and the raid on the army camp.

But India has said it will not pull back its army from the border until it is convinced the action against militants is permanent and their training camps are dismantled.

Musharraf earlier told reporters that Pakistan would study any steps taken by India, but the risk of war remained.