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Powell on mission to calm India, Pakistan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Calling Kashmir one of the most dangerous places in the world, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Thursday Secretary of State Colin Powell will seek to "lower the temperature" between India and Pakistan when he visits the region this week.

"We have to seize the moment," Armitage said, adding that Powell wants to "probe the minds of the Pakistanis and Indians to see if there is not a way to lower the temperature."

Administration officials have voiced concern about Indian military action against guerrillas in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or against Islamic militant camps in Kashmir, after a Pakistan-based military group ignited a car bomb in the territory last week, killing 40 people.

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Administration officials tell CNN that the State Department is expected to officially designate the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) group, believed to be responsible for the bombing, a "foreign terrorist organization." The State Department's annual terrorism report says JEM, whose aim is to unite Kashmir with Pakistan, has "rapidly expanded in size and capability" since its formation in February.

Powell will caution India not to take any action against Pakistan while its attention is diverted to the current U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan, a senior administration official told CNN.

Armitage noted that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf tried to "reach out" to New Delhi with a call this week to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the issue, signaling that "Pakistan hasn't given up trying to talk about" the long-disputed Kashmir. He added that India, too, has decided to "continue to try to search for a peaceful solution."

"It was a tense situation for a while," he said. "It is mildly better ... and the secretary will try to make it mildly better yet."

Powell will offer reassurances to both Musharraf and Vajpayee that they are both on the "same side" of the U.S. coalition against terrorism, senior administration officials told CNN. The officials said that while Powell will acknowledge the differences between the two parties, he would pressure them to avoid provocation during this current sensitive period.

"He will say it is important that there are no mistakes," one official said. "Stay cool, be calm."

Powell decided to travel to South Asia in large measure to lend support to Musharraf for his public support for the U.S. war against terrorism, including the military campaign in Afghanistan. Since the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan began, the continued stability of Musharraf's government is a main concern of the Bush administration because the large Islamic extremist population, which supports the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, has rejected Pakistan's support for the campaign.

Shaping a future Afghanistan

But Armitage said "the consolidation of stability in Pakistan has been quicker and greater than we had originally expected," after Musharraf fired officials within the military and intelligence service who were thought to be pro-bin Laden.

"The confidence with which (the) president is moving forward seemed to indicate to me the extent to which there are tensions, and there are, they're manageable," Armitage said of the political situation in Pakistan.

He added that Powell would also seek Pakistan's views about "what the shape of a future Afghanistan would look like." The United States has been working with several Afghan opposition groups on forming a future broad-based government in the country.

He said that while there is "no new initiative" on Kashmir, Powell is expected to "listen to what they have to say and talk about ways to reduce anxiety."

Pakistan has long requested a third party to mediate the Kashmir dispute, but the official said that United States would not seek a mediator role, because of India's long-standing objection to such outside involvement.

"We can't be seen as tilting toward Pakistan by offering," this official said. "And it would be rejected, so what is the point?"

Another official suggested that Powell's presence alone would serve to "bring down the anxiety factor."

A senior administration official said Powell would spend "equal time" in both Islamabad and New Delhi.

"We are going to make sure India does not feel slighted," this official said.

Armitage said that the Indians have been "fantastic" in their firm commitment to supply the United States with anything it needs in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

The Pentagon was also approaching New Delhi about enhancing military cooperation, and was addressing "specifics" on how India could assist with the currently military campaign against Afghanistan.



 
 
 
 


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