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India is ready for war, army chief assures

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NEW DELHI, India — In a tough warning from India's military, the army chief said today that his country is "ready for war" and threatened massive retaliation if Pakistan struck with nuclear weapons.

Gen. Sunderajan Padmanabhan said the buildup of Indian and Pakistani troops at the border had brought the two countries "quite close to an actual war." But he repeated India's policy that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry insisted Islamabad "wants peace and is ready for talks with India any time, any place and anywhere." But ministry spokesman Mohammed Aziz Khan warned Thursday that the danger of skirmishes escalating into full war "cannot be ruled out." Pakistan has said repeatedly it would not use nuclear weapons.

The Indian army chief's comments came as Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, prepared to announce comprehensive measures against religious violence and extremism.

Musharraf will detail the measures in a speech Saturday, a government official said.

New Delhi has demanded Islamabad crack down on Pakistan-based Islamic militants battling India's rule over part of Kashmir. The countries have massed troops on their borders since a Dec. 13 attack on India's Parliament that India blames on militants.

The United States has been calling for dialogue between the two countries, while urging Musharraf to take stronger action against militant groups.

President Bush urges both sides "to recognize the importance of fighting terrorism," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Friday on Air Force One as the president flew to Pennsylvania.

"India and Pakistan have a mutual enemy in terrorism, not each other," Fleischer said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was to arrive in New Delhi on Jan. 18 after a stop in Pakistan, an Indian official said Friday.

Bush assured India's home minister, Lal K. Advani, on Thursday that the United States will press Pakistan to crack down further on militants.

Advani, a top adviser on security issues, told the PBS NewsHour, "We are not preparing for war, but what we know is that a war has been inflicted on us" by Pakistani-backed militants.

But the head of India's army issued one of the strongest statements yet by the military.

"Yes, we are fully ready," Padmanabhan told journalists when asked if India was ready for a conventional war.

He said an assault on Islamic militant camps India says are located in the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir could be "viable."

"We can achieve the desired results provided we know where the camps are and we have the right weapons," to attack without too many civilian casualties, he said.

Padmanabhan called the situation at the border "serious." India planning military exercises in two border states this month, but the general underlined that the broader buildup of troops at the border was no practice run.

"This (deployment) we are doing for real. We have not gone for exercises. We are ready for war," he said.

"When two forces are opposite each other you are quite close to an actual war, but an actual war doesn't happen like that," he said. "It is governments that have to set about the business of war."

He reiterated India's declared policy of no first-strike with nuclear weapons. But any country that launches a nuclear strike against India "shall be punished, and so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form of fray will be doubtful," he said.

India is going ahead with military exercises this month in the border states of Rajasthan and Punjab. Pimabhan said the maneuvers are meant to prepare us for any eventuality."

India accuses Pakistan's spy agency of backing two Islamic militant groups in the attack on Parliament, which left nine Indians and the five assailants dead. Pakistan denies the claim.

Indian police brought the bodies of the five assailants to an Islamic cemetery in New Delhi for burial on Friday. India says the five were Pakistani citizens, but Pakistan says they are not its nationals and refused to take the bodies.

In Kashmir, six militants and a civilian were killed in gunfights Friday between the guerrillas and Indian security troops, Press Trust of India reported. A grenade was fired at a security vehicle near the high court in Srinagar in Kashmir, causing no injuries, the agency said.

India has long accused Pakistan of waging a "proxy war" against it by allowing Islamic militant groups to recruit, raise funds and train in camps on its soil and in the portion of the disputed Kashmir region that Pakistan controls.

Pakistan denies giving military or financial support to the militants, saying it only gives them political backing in their cause — the battle against India's rule in two-thirds of Kashmir, the Himalayan territory divided between the two countries.

Kashmir, which both nations claim, has been at the center of two of the three wars fought by India and Pakistan since 1947.

Pakistan has arrested some 300 militants since the Parliament attack. But India says camps still exist in Pakistan's part of Kashmir and militants continue to operate.