India's Vajpayee Rules Out Talks With Musharraf

By Andrew Browne and Simon Denyer

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (June 2) - Indian and Pakistani leaders headed for a security conference in central Asia on Sunday but with no plans to meet to defuse a crisis edging their nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war.

Both sides, however, sought to soothe fears of nuclear conflict which have sparked a scramble out of the subcontinent by diplomats and their families.

After Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday described nuclear war as unthinkable for any sane person, India's defense minister on Sunday said nobody should worry about the "nuclear thing."

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ruled out a meeting with Musharraf at the 16-nation conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at which Russia is hoping to act as mediator.

"There is no such plan," Vajpayee told reporters before leaving New Delhi.

But he said he would give serious consideration to talks at some point if there was evidence Musharraf was making good on his promise to curb Islamic militant raids into Indian Kashmir.

Musharraf said he wanted a meeting, but he would drop the idea if Vajpayee was not interested.

Along the border where one million soldiers, tanks and artillery are massed, both armies traded mortar and machine-gun fire. Four Pakistanis and an Indian woman were killed in exchanges around the disputed Kashmir region, officials and witnesses said.

India said eight civilians were hurt when Pakistan troops launched a mortar attack on Garkwal village. Pakistan said four soldiers were injured by Indian shelling in nearby Punjab province.


The United States and other Western nations are alarmed Vajpayee and Musharraf, driven partly by internal political pressures over Kashmir, the flashpoint for two of their three wars since 1947, may be speeding towards a confrontation which could end in nuclear exchanges.

But in Singapore, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes told Reuters on the sidelines of a security conference: "I don't think anyone should be worried about the nuclear thing. I don't know who has started this."

He said the crisis would end if Pakistan handed over 14 Indians on a list of 20 terrorist suspects New Delhi has handed to Islamabad, and if border incursions ended.

"India will not be impulsive," he told the conference. "All we expect of the Musharraf regime is that it desist from supporting terrorism."

The troop buildup was triggered by a bloody December attack on the Indian parliament New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants fighting its rule in disputed Kashmir.

Tension flared again after a raid on an Indian army camp in Kashmir on May 14 in which 34 people were killed, including the three gunmen.

Vajpayee and Musharraf last met at a South Asian summit in Katmandu in January when, despite hopes they might discuss their differences, they just shook hands and spoke briefly.

India has said Vajpayee would raise what he calls Pakistani-sponsored "cross-border terrorism" during the three-day Almaty meeting opening on Monday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with both men in Almaty, and Moscow is eager to broker a face-to-face meeting between the two.


There were signs efforts by Musharraf to check the activities of militants were having an effect.

Sources among separatist groups in Pakistan-ruled Kashmir said that, under instruction from Islamabad, they had virtually halted their incursions across the 1948 ceasefire line dividing the region.

"They have been asked, so infiltration has virtually stopped," a source close to the militants said.

"The instruction was issued a week ago or so," the source said, adding there was also a restriction on contacting rebels in Indian Kashmir.

Speaking in Tajikistan on his way to Almaty, Musharraf acknowledged the risks of the military buildup.

"The situation is very dangerous. Around a million troops are massed along the border, and a small incident could complicate the situation," he told reporters.

But he appeared to rule out use of nuclear weapons. "The nuclear question is a very serious question, and there cannot be such a possibility," he said.

India has ruled out first use of nuclear weapons, while Pakistan has not.

Musharraf said he had proposed a meeting with Vajpayee several times "but if he does not want it, I think that in future there is no point in raising this question again."


The United States, Britain and other Western nations have urged thousands of their nationals to leave the subcontinent immediately, fearing a panic flight if war erupts. On Sunday, the United Nations started to evacuate families of staff, and plans to send home around 300 people over the next few days.

India's Defense Secretary, Yogendra Narain, was quoted as saying in a magazine interview that in the event of a nuclear strike by Pakistan "we will retaliate and must be prepared for mutual destruction on both sides."

The country's top defense bureaucrat also said if militants struck again, surgical strikes by India on militant bases would be the "realistic option," not all-out war. And they could come at a three hours' notice, he told the magazine Outlook.

Defense analysts believe even a limited strike across the border by Indian forces could spark war -- and that faced with overwhelming military odds Pakistan might quickly unleash its nuclear arsenal.

India says there are dozens of militant camps across the border in Pakistani Kashmir. Pakistan denies the Indian charges and says it only provides moral, political and diplomatic support to the legitimate Kashmiri freedom struggle.

06/02/02 12:16 ET