- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha said yesterday he was encouraged that Pakistan has shown “much greater flexibility and determination” in controlling cross-border attacks on Indian forces in the disputed Kashmir region, laying the groundwork for direct talks next month.

Mr. Sinha was in Washington to brief U.S. officials and lawmakers on the talks, which are aimed at easing tensions in South Asia and are the culmination of almost nine months of careful rapprochement between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

An extensive cease-fire along the disputed Kashmir border has held since November, Mr. Sinha said in a meeting with editors and reporters from The Washington Times. India also has detected a new determination from Pakistan to control Islamist militants operating from territory under Islamabad’s control, he added.

“We did see a much greater flexibility and determination on the part of Pakistan to deal with the issue of Kashmir,” he said. “That has certainly encouraged us.”

He said infiltration by militants across Kashmir’s informal border is “far less” than it was a year ago, although the real test might come when the spring thaw clears key mountain passes.

The Indian foreign minister said his Washington trip coincided with one of the warmest periods in memory for U.S.-Indian ties.

Mr. Sinha’s visit comes a week after President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee jointly announced a major expansion of the “strategic partnership” begun under the Clinton administration.

The two leaders agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in three areas: civilian nuclear programs, space programs and high-tech trade. In addition, India and the United States agreed to expand their “dialogue” on missile-defense programs and controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Sinha, who met for almost a half-hour with Mr. Bush at the White House as well as with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, said it was significant that Mr. Bush and Mr. Vajpayee had endorsed the accord personally.

“This shows the seriousness of the intent” to move toward closer ties, he told reporters after a luncheon with Mr. Powell.

Although India disappointed U.S. hopes that it might contribute troops to the Iraq peacekeeping mission, Mr. Sinha said Iraq was not a major focus of his talks here. Mr. Powell praised New Delhi for its offers to aid in the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

U.S. officials have been watching closely the unexpected diplomatic thaw between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars since gaining independence in 1947. The South Asian neighbors nearly came to blows once more in 2002, with Kashmir again at the heart of the dispute.

But Mr. Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed during a summit of South Asian nations in Islamabad on Jan. 6 to a new round of direct talks, the first in three years.

Indian press reports say the talks are expected to begin in the third week of February in New Delhi. Mr. Sinha said India has not determined at what level the delegation heads will be.

Mr. Vajpayee, whose ruling coalition has called for early elections this spring, softened a long-standing Indian refusal to discuss the status of Kashmir in bilateral talks with Pakistan.

The election could come as early as March or April, but Mr. Sinha said yesterday that the talks with Pakistan have support across the Indian political spectrum and can proceed despite the campaign.

Gen. Musharraf, who faces heavy domestic pressure from Islamist militant groups not to compromise on the Kashmir issue, in turn pledged to prevent terrorists from using Pakistan territory to launch attacks on Indian security forces in Kashmir.

Two recent assassination attempts on Gen. Musharraf, blamed on the Islamist militants, “fortunately failed,” Mr. Powell said yesterday.

“But it shows that there are still terrorists in his country that do not like what he is doing.”

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