Pakistan pulls border troops

By KATHY GANNON

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan made a peace overture to its rival India on Wednesday, announcing the withdrawal of some of its troops from the volatile border of Kashmir, the flashpoint of two wars between the South Asian nuclear powers.

The gesture came in response to India’s offer to extend by a month a cease-fire with Islamic militants waging a bitter insurgency in the Indian-held part of the divided Himalayan territory.

Pakistan urged India to withdraw troops from its side of the line of control, the 1973 cease-fire line through Kashmir, which last year was the scene of fierce fighting between India and Islamic militants. Those clashes nearly escalated into another full-fledged war between the two countries.

"The fact is that we have withdrawn troops from the line of control and that is a very positive step and we would like to see India now reciprocate," Gen. Rashid Quereshi, a Pakistani army spokesman, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Concerns mounted over India and Pakistan’s bloody rivalry over Kashmir — which both claim in its entirety — after the two countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998. They have fought two wars over the territory, divided between them after British rule in the subcontinent ended in 1947.

Pakistan has 25,000 to 30,000 troops deployed along the frontier, where they and Indian forces often trade fire. The army did not specify how many would be withdrawn, but it said the pullback already had begun.

The withdrawal "manifests Pakistan’s earnest and genuine desire to de-escalate the situation in order to facilitate the process of meaningful dialogue on the issue," the army said in a statement.

It comes on top of a withdrawal of some troops ordered by Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf soon after he came to power in an October 1999 coup. "Those soldiers never returned to the Line of Control and this is more that we are withdrawing," said Quereshi.

President Clinton welcomed the moves by both countries as steps toward reducing tension in the region.

India’s "initiative, along with Pakistan’s announcement today that it will withdraw part of its forces deployed along the Line of Control and its earlier decision to exercise maximum restraint there, raises the hopes of the world community that peace is possible in Kashmir," Clinton said.

The United Nations was also pleased by the initiatives. "We hope it will contribute to the resolution of the problem of Jammu-Kashmir," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

Islamic guerrillas battling Indian forces in Kashmir are demanding either independence or unification with Pakistan. India accuses Islamabad of fomenting the insurgency, but Pakistan said it gives only moral and political support to the rebels, many of whom are based on its soil.

India says it is willing to open negotiations with the guerrillas, but refuses to include Pakistan in the talks. It has refused separate negotiations with Pakistan over the broader issues of their rivalry until it halts support for the insurgents.

India called a unilateral cease-fire in Kashmir in early December. Though Kashmiri rebels rejected a truce, Pakistan responded at the time by calling a halt in hostilities along the Line of Control, and tensions were reduced.

On Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told Parliament the cease-fire — due to end Dec. 28 — would be extended until at least Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day. He said that despite some fighting over the past weeks, the cease-fire had been a success.

"A distinctively different and more optimistic mood prevails. The constituency for peace has expanded significantly," Vajpayee said.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir’s main separatist alliance, reacted cautiously to the cease-fire extension, saying talks among India, Pakistan and the representatives of the Kashmiri people were essential to resolve the 11-year insurgency.

At least 30,000 people have been killed in the disputed province since the Islamic uprising began in 1989. Human rights activists say the death toll is closer to 60,000.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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