- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

NEW DELHI India began withdrawing warships from waters near Pakistan yesterday in a gesture to ease tension between the nuclear-armed neighbors under intense international pressure to step back from the brink of war.

As Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived in the region to keep the pressure on, Indian and Pakistani forces fired artillery and small arms across their border in disputed Kashmir overnight, killing at least seven persons.

The ship movement came a day after India announced it would allow Pakistani aircraft to fly over its territory after a six-month ban.

"Ships of the Western Fleet, which were patrolling different areas of the north Arabian Sea, have been recalled to their base as per the government decision," navy Cmdr. Rahul Gupta said. The ships were expected back in Bombay within two days.

Cmdr. Gupta did not say how many ships were moving, but the Western Fleet includes India's only aircraft carrier, several submarines, missile destroyers and frigates.

Five other ships that had been moved from the eastern side of the subcontinent also were withdrawn but would remain on the west coast for now, Cmdr. Gupta said.

Asked yesterday if Pakistan would reciprocate India's overtures, President Pervez Musharraf said his country had already "done far more of its share of easing the tension."

Speaking at a news conference in the United Arab Emirates after the overflight announcement but before the ship redeployment was officially announced, Gen. Musharraf asserted that the gestures benefited India, not Pakistan.

He said India has been inconvenienced by Pakistan's ban on Indian flights, and that its navy faced high costs and problems operating ships in rough waters.

India and Pakistan have been stepping back from war footing, but a million soldiers line their frontier and both nation's acknowledge the threat of war remains. World leaders have been urging restraint, fearing a fourth war between them could develop into a nuclear conflict.

"The situation is getting better, but so long as there's troops massed and people are still hostile toward each other, there's always the threat that something can happen," President Bush said at the White House. "But I'm pleased with the progress we've made."

Mr. Rumsfeld, who arrived in New Delhi late yesterday, was to meet with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today, then continue his shuttle diplomacy in Islamabad tomorrow.

"There have been some hopeful signs," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, yesterday. "It's not getting worse, and that's a good thing."

The hostilities heated up after both sides massed forces on the frontier following a deadly December attack on the Indian Parliament that India blamed on Islamic militants it claimed were backed by Pakistan. Pakistan denied the claim.

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