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India-Pakistan war looking less likely

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Despite ominous saber-rattling and the biggest military buildup on their border in 15 years, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan appear to be stepping back from the brink of war.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee were to be staying at the same hotel this weekend while attending a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Katmandu, Nepal.

Although Vajpayee's spokesman said there is "no chance" of private meetings between the two while their troops trade fire in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, an Indian foreign ministry statement hinted at the possibility of peace talks between their foreign ministers.

India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists by giving sanctuary and military aid to separatist guerrilla groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

Pakistan says it gives only moral support to those it regards as "freedom fighters."

But Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir since Britain partitioned the Asian subcontinent in 1947. A third confrontation in 1999 nearly turned nuclear when both staged air raids on each other's territory during three months of border fighting in the Kargil region.

Tensions rose again after a Dec. 13 suicide bomb attack on India's Parliament. India blamed two Pakistan-based groups fighting for Kashmir's independence — Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad — and charged that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency was involved.

As mortar and machine-gun exchanges erupted along their frontier, India moved up warplanes and missiles, Pakistan responded in kind and both severed transport links and kicked out each other's ambassadors. President Bush, publicly worried that Indo-Pakistan hostilities could unravel his global coalition against terrorism, engaged in some frantic telephone diplomacy.

India, assured of U.S. support in its battle against terrorism, was gratified to see Lashkar and Jaish placed on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Pakistan, pressured to arrest its militants, did so by detaining the leaders of both groups and rounding up two dozen other Kashmiri militants "for questioning."

There the matter rests, for now. It is, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "a grim warning" that Bush's war on terrorism can get sidetracked by local conflicts, and may even worsen them.

India, for example, may feel more justified in attacking Pakistan since the United States launched its war on terrorism in Afghanistan. And any diversion of Pakistani troops to the Indian border takes them away from the Afghan border, where they were deployed to prevent fleeing Taliban — and perhaps Osama bin Laden — from escaping into Pakistan.

While the Indo-Pakistan standoff is certain to dominate the SAARC summit in Katmandu, it is by no means the only conflict in South Asia.

Summit host Nepal is waging its own war against Maoist rebels who have been trying to overthrow the monarchy since 1996. About 2,200 people have died in the insurgency, which abated during a truce last year but escalated after rebels renewed attacks in November.

Nepal is now under a state of emergency. India has provided two helicopters to help the Nepalese army flush the rebels out of their mountain hideouts, and the kingdom has purchased two more gunships from Russia.

The Indian state of Assam, rich in tea plantations and oil, also suffers periodic attacks by separatist guerrillas who accuse the New Delhi government of plundering its resources and giving nothing back. The rebels are based in neighboring Bhutan, another mountain kingdom, but were given a New Year's deadline to dismantle their training camps and ammunition dumps. South Asia's longest running, and bloodiest, war is in Sri Lanka, where Tamil separatists have been battling the Sinhalese government for 18 years.

More than 64,000 people have died in the conflict, which features one of the world's most prolific suicide squads, earning the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a place on the State Department's terrorist roster since 1996.

The rebels declared a Christmas cease-fire, raising hopes that peace talks may be in the offing. But many such truces have collapsed before, usually broken by the Tigers.

Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: hjens@aol.com.