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India chief says talks could avert war

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KATMANDU, Nepal — India's prime minister said Thursday he had no intention of holding face-to-face talks with Pakistan's president at a regional summit to defuse tensions between the rival nations, but he suggested diplomacy could avert war.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf warned that his country would strike back hard if India launched a full-fledged attack. The sides traded mortar and small-arms fire overnight in disputed Kashmir. And Islamic militants in Kashmir reportedly threatened new anti-India attacks.

With both countries' tone softening as their leaders headed to Nepal, India's foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, said his country understood it would take Pakistan time to dismantle Islamic militant groups — New Delhi's chief demand to Islamabad. He said Pakistan's arrest of about 50 militants in recent days was a step in the right direction.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Bangladesh on Thursday, starting a tour of the subcontinent that has gained new urgency since relations between the former British colonies sharply deteriorated. Blair was expected to meet with Indian leaders over the weekend.

"War is not a must," Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said before flying to Nepal's capital Thursday for the South Asian leaders summit. "Efforts are being made to avoid war through diplomatic channels. If that succeeds, there will be no need to opt for other alternatives."

Musharraf arrived in Beijing Thursday and left by motorcade to consult with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, a key ally, before flying to Katmandu on Friday. Musharraf said he was "going with an open mind" to the summit but gave a warning to India.

"Pakistan wants peace and de-escalation, but should a mistake of attacking Pakistan be made, they would regret their decision," Musharraf told his military commanders and Cabinet.

Musharraf's flight over China enables him to avoid passing over Indian air space, now closed to Pakistani airlines. India had offered to make an exception for Musharraf's jet, but he declined.

The two nuclear-armed nations — who have fought three wars since 1947 — have massed tens of thousands of troops at their borders since a Dec. 13 attack on India's Parliament. India blamed two Pakistan-based Islamic groups and said Pakistan's spy agency sponsored the attack.

Pakistan denied the accusation.

But it has frozen accounts for the two groups — Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed — and arrested dozens of their members.

Singh, the Indian foreign minister, called those actions "steps in the right direction," though he said Pakistan needs "to act much more in that direction."

He told a news conference in the Nepalese capital that India understands Pakistan would need time to dismantle "all these edifices of terrorism that it has either permitted or constructed over the past two decades."

The comments were conciliatory in comparison to his previous description of Pakistan's actions as "cosmetic" and designed to deceive the international community.

Pakistan has said it is moving against Islamic groups to enforce its own laws not because of Indian pressure — and has said it needs concrete evidence before moving against specific militants India wants extradited.

The militant groups are battling Indian rule in two-thirds of the Himalayan territory of Kashmir in a 12-year insurgency that has left thousands dead. India accuses Pakistan of waging a "proxy war" against it through the militants, while Pakistan says it only gives the groups — whom it calls "freedom fighters" — political support.

Indian forces have stepped up security in Kashmir after local newspapers said Wednesday they had received a statement from Jaish-e-Mohammed threatening fresh attacks on soldiers and police. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba has also warned of attacks on police patrols and army bunkers in Srinagar.

The territory saw a rash of attacks Wednesday, including a grenade attack near the legislature of Jammu-Kashmir state that killed two people. That night, militants opened fire on an army base, killing two soldiers. Scattered gunbattles Wednesday left nine militants dead, Indian officials said.

The gathering of senior officials from seven South Asian nations for a region summit in Nepal has seen a softening of rhetoric between India and Pakistan, and at a gathering of foreign ministers on Wednesday, the two countries' ministers shook hands and smiled.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the summit "could be an opportunity for them to seek ways to make progress toward resolving their current differences and reducing tensions."

But India has insisted there will be no one-on-one talks at any level concerning the crisis. "I'm not here to conduct India-Pakistan relations," Singh said. A top aide to Vajpayee said that "sparks would fly" if the two leaders met, embarrassing the Nepalese hosts.

Vajpayee and Musharraf last met in Agra, India in July, but the talks ended on a sour note, with no joint declaration, because of differences over Kashmir. Both nations claim the entire Himalayan region.

"We are not against talks, but cross-border terrorism must end to create an atmosphere for dialogue," Vajpayee said earlier.

The Nepal summit — which also includes Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Bhutan — is being held after a three-year delay because of a 1999 border conflict between India and Pakistan and a military coup that brought Musharraf to power.