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Queen's visit to India marred by misunderstandings

Cannons boomed in salute Monday to welcome Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in a visit marred by diplomatic misunderstanding even before it began.

At issue were reports that India's prime minister called Britain "a third-rate power" for allegedly seeking to mediate in the long-running dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.The queen, who arrived here Sunday night from neighboring Pakistan, was officially welcomed in ceremonies at the presidential palace.

To mark the queen's arrival, a British spokeswoman also read a statement by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in response to the supposed insult by Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral.

"I welcome the assurance by the Indian government that reports that their prime minister had described Britain as `a third-rate power' was without foundation," Cook's statement said.

Gujral purportedly said Britain was responsible for the dispute over Kashmir, which was carved out of India when Britain ended its 200-year colonial rule in 1947.

"A third-rate power has presumed to say that they have a historical responsibility to solve the Kashmir issue," Gujral was quoted in Indian newspapers as saying during a private meeting recently with Egyptian intellectuals in Cairo.

The Indian Foreign Office issued a denial, saying the quotes attributed to Gujral "are completely without foundation."

Gujral's alleged outburst followed reports that Cook, while in Pakistan, had renewed London's offer to mediate the Kashmir dispute. Cook denied making any statement on Kashmir while in Pakistan.

India rejects any outside interference in Kashmir, while Pakistan wants the dispute resolved through the United Nations.

Since 1989, a secessionist war in Kashmir against Indian forces has left more than 16,000 dead. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the insurrection by arming and training the rebels and facilitating their infiltration across the border.

On Tuesday, the queen is expected to visit the northern Indian city of Amritsar, where another controversy awaits her.

Some Sikhs, an influential minority in India, want an apology for a 1919 massacre of more than 300 unarmed civilians by British soldiers, an incident that gave popular momentum to the Indian inde-pen-dence movement.