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Musharraf set to speak today

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NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf was set to address his nation today as about a million men from the Pakistan and Indian armies faced off at the border and the United States cautioned them against war.

The official APP news agency said Musharraf would speak at 7:30 p.m. (1430 GMT) in an address which could pave the way for an easing in the stand-off, triggered by an attack on India's parliament last month, or prompt fresh action by India.

The general has been preparing for several days for the speech, under pressure from nuclear rival India to do more to crack down on Islamic militants and with the international community calling on both sides to end the stand-off.

As India's army chief said his army was ready for war, the United States sounded a word of caution and said on Friday New Delhi should give Musharraf time to crack down on Kashmiri militants and not focus all its expectations on the speech he is due to deliver.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, due to visit India and Pakistan next week, said war over Kashmir would be "unthinkable" and a "disaster" between the nuclear-armed nations.

"We have to try to solve this in diplomatic and political channels because the dangers to peace in that part of the world, and the impact it would have on the entire international situation for a conflict to break out between these two nuclear armed nations, are so troubling to contemplate," he said.

Powell told reporters he had been trying to cool tensions in daily telephone diplomacy and made clear one message to India was to keep being patient with Musharraf.

The White House expressed continuing concern about the situation and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "India and Pakistan have a mutual enemy in terrorists, not in each other.

"Concerns remain. But President Musharraf is going to be giving a speech this weekend. It will be an important speech and the president looks forward to hearing it," he said.

India has mobilized the bulk of its 1.2 million strong army — prompting a similar build-up from Pakistan's smaller army of around 500,000 to 600,000 men — to try to force Islamabad to crack down harder on Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatists.

On Friday, the head of the Indian army said the forces were mobilized and ready for war.

"We are fully ready," Gen. S. Padmanabhan told a news conference in New Delhi. "I have not gone to do an exercise. I have gone to be ready for war, to defend my country."

He reiterated Indian policy that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but said India could launch a nuclear counter-attack if it needed to do so.

Both countries held nuclear tests in 1998 and have since been trying to develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear bombs.

Their military stand-off has raised fears—in a worst-case scenario—of the world's first nuclear war.

Analysts said the Indian army chief's tough talking appeared to be meant to send a message to Musharraf ahead of his speech.

But the Indian government was quick to nuance his comments, with Defence Minister George Fernandes issuing a statement saying India was pursuing diplomatic options.

"In the prevailing situation in the subcontinent, we are pursuing the diplomatic efforts in the belief that they will yield results," he said.

He also played down the potential use of nuclear weapons as something "no sensible person" would ever want to do.

"The government has not been talking of nuclear weapons. I wish everyone gives up this talk of nuclear weapons being brought into play," he said.

An official source also told reporters that the deployment of the Indian army remained "precautionary and defensive."

India accuses Pakistan of sponsoring militants fighting Indian rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state.

Pakistan denies this, but has offered moral support to what it has called a "freedom struggle" in Kashmir.

Officials play down speech

And while Musharraf has denounced terrorism and vowed a crackdown on extremists within his borders, Pakistani officials have played down prospects of a history-making move by Musharraf on the Kashmir dispute.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947.

Musharraf, who seized power in 1999 after the former civilian prime minister agreed under U.S. pressure to pull back from a potential war with India over Kashmir, must balance global pressure to crush the militants with strong domestic support for the separatist cause.

Official sources in New Delhi have said that India, which has already cut direct flights and scaled back diplomatic missions, could consider further diplomatic action against Pakistan if it feels Musharraf's speech does not go far enough before turning to military options.