From combined dispatches
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged India and Pakistan yesterday to avoid conflict, while India for the first time said it was open to a dialogue after a major weekend address by Pakistan’s leader.
As Mr. Powell arrived in Islamabad on the first leg of a South Asian peace shuttle to defuse a standoff between the nuclear rivals, India’s navy chief said forces were ready for war.
But Mr. Powell said he saw reason for hope after what he described as a “bold and seminal” address to the nation by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday.
In his speech, Gen. Musharraf condemned all forms of terrorism, said no one could carry out attacks on other countries from Pakistan and banned five militant Muslim groups, including two India blamed for an attack on its Parliament last month.
“We want to start seeing whether or not both sides believe enough progress has been made that find ways to de-escalate politically and diplomatically and in due course, hopefully, there will be a military de-escalation as well,” Mr. Powell told a news conference after talks with Gen. Musharraf.
“We need a campaign against terrorism, not a campaign with these two countries fighting one another,” he said, referring to the U.S.-led war on terrorism declared after the September 11 attacks and supported by both India and Pakistan.
In New Delhi, Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani praised Gen. Musharraf’s speech as “path-breaking.” His comments came after his return from Washington and on the eve of a visit by Mr. Powell.
“The speech which Gen. Musharraf has made is important, is in a way path-breaking,” Mr. Advani said. “I have not heard earlier any other Pakistani leader denouncing theocracy in the manner in which Gen. Musharraf did.”
India and Pakistan have massed hundreds of thousands of troops on their frontier since a Dec. 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament, which New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups and Pakistan’s spy agency. Pakistan and the two groups denied involvement.
Until yesterday, India gave Gen. Musharraf’s weekend speech a lukewarm response, with leaders calling on the general to first make good on his promises.
Farooq Abdullah, elected head of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, said militant attacks and firing along the border declined sharply after Gen. Musharraf’s speech.
However, the praise from Mr. Advani was balanced carefully with New Delhi’s reiteration that Pakistan had yet to take substantive action against the Islamic militants for cross-border attacks in Kashmir.
“Dialogue is something we have always advocated with Pakistan for the resolution of outstanding issues, but the conditions for talks have to be created by Pakistan,” said Indian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao. She said Islamabad had not yet responded to India’s demand to hand over 20 men wanted in India on terrorism charges.
Mr. Powell said that while Gen. 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.
Mr. Powell said it was important India and Pakistan begin talks on divided Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, and that the wishes of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account.
He was hesitant to say the United States would mediate, but noted he would do anything “to get the two sides talking on all issues between them, and one such issue is Kashmir.”
Pakistan has long called for mediation on Kashmir, but India has refused to consider outside involvement.
Gen. Musharraf, keen to defuse the crisis and draw India into peace talks, began the crackdown on militants late last month. Pakistani state media said the authorities had detained 1,957 persons and shut and sealed 650 offices of militant groups.
On the eve of Mr. Powell’s arrival in the region, New Delhi police said they had arrested four persons with links to the banned Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group Lashkar-e-Taiba on suspicion of planning an attack on the Indian capital during a rehearsal for the Republic Day parade planned for Jan. 26.
India blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba and another Pakistan-based guerrilla group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, for the attack on its Parliament. Pakistan has banned both groups.
Mr. Powell said President Bush had invited Gen. Musharraf to visit Washington in the near future and the foreign ministers were discussing dates.
Islamabad is Mr. Powell’s first stop on a five-nation trip that includes Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Japan, the venue for an Afghanistan reconstruction conference next week.