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Powell exhorts Pakistan and India to avoid conflict

But India’s naval chief says force is ready to fight

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan/NEW DELHI, India — Secretary of State Colin Powell urged India and Pakistan on Wednesday to work to avoid conflict as he arrived in Islamabad on the first leg of a round of South Asia shuttle diplomacy.

With the nuclear rivals' armies facing off across their border and the Indian navy chief saying he was ready for war, Powell said he saw reason for hope after a weekend speech by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

"We really cannot have a war in South Asia, and we have to find a way to work through this crisis," Powell said in an interview with Pakistani state television after talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Abdul Sattar.

But as Powell arrived, India's navy chief confirmed his force was ready to fight.

"All three wings of the armed forces are fully mobilized. . . . The navy is fully stood to, its powder is dry, we are ready," Adm. Madhavendra Singh said in his first news conference since the stand-off began after a Dec. 13 attack on India's parliament.

India, which deployed its army after the attack it blamed on Pakistan-based militants, says it will not pull back until Musharraf delivers on a pledge to crack down on Islamic fighters.

But Powell said he saw reason for hope, particularly after a weekend speech by military ruler Musharraf in which he ordered a sweeping crackdown on Muslim militants, including the two groups India blamed for the attack on its parliament.

"I hope that as a result of my visit we can keep the process moving forward to find a solution to the current crisis," Powell said.

"I am somewhat encouraged. I think that President Musharraf gave a very historic speech this past weekend. . . . I think the Indian response was quite measured and I think they are reflecting on the speech."

Powell said it was important that India and Pakistan begin talks on divided Kashmir, the cause of two of the three wars between the neighbors since independence in 1947, and that the wishes of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account.

"The very first thing we need to do is to get a dialogue going between the two sides, get a listing of the issues.

"It's been a very dominant issue for many decades and ultimately if we are going to achieve the kind of peace we want to see here in South Asia, a dialogue must begin that will deal with the issue of Kashmir . . . and especially takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people," Powell said. India is demanding Pakistan act to prevent all attacks on Indian targets in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

Musharraf, keen to defuse the crisis and draw India into peace talks, launched the crackdown on militants late last month. Pakistani state media said 1,957 people had been detained and 650 offices of militant groups had been shut and sealed.

The two sides have been trading almost daily fire across the border in recent weeks and dozens of people on both sides have been killed and wounded. Officers from both armies said the situation was quiet on the border Wednesday.

India has also welcomed Musharraf's moves but wants words matched with lasting action.

Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani said India would judge the sincerity of Pakistan's pledge to curb Islamic militants based on whether it stopped them crossing the border and handed over 20 "criminals and terrorists" wanted in India.

"Handing over of 20 terrorists and whether or not infiltration continues; these are the two aspects of my demands which would be evident to us," Advani said. "These are the two touchstones on the basis of which we will judge."

Powell said that while Musharraf had ruled out handing over Pakistani nationals, "he can certainly take appropriate action" on non-Pakistanis. But he said some of the people on the list were not easy to find.

On the eve of Powell's arrival in the region, Delhi police said they had arrested four people with links to the banned Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba on suspicion of planning an attack on the Indian capital.

Police said in a statement the four planned to attack a rehearsal for the country's Republic Day parade planned for Jan. 26 in an effort to force India to call off the show, a traditional display of military might and cultural diversity.

The Indian Defense Ministry said the parade would go ahead as scheduled. India blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba and another Pakistan-based guerrilla group, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, for the attack on its parliament. Both groups have been banned by Pakistan.

Musharraf Tuesday promised an instant response if India was ready to ease border tension. But he reiterated that he would never give up support for the "freedom struggle" in Kashmir.

India has been incensed in the past at Pakistan for calling the Kashmir revolt as a freedom struggle, blaming the insurgency, in which at least 33,000 people have died, on Pakistani interference.