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Powell in Pakistan amid heightened tensions

Quetta, Pakistan
Protesters in Quetta, Pakistan burn an American flag on Monday.  


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Islamabad on Monday, opening his bid to calm tensions between South Asian foes Pakistan and India -- tensions that exploded Monday in an Indian artillery attack on Pakistani positions inside the disputed region of Kashmir.

Indian artillery shelled Pakistani military posts across the cease-fire line in Kashmir on Monday, ending a 10-month border calm. A senior Indian Army official said 11 Pakistani posts were destroyed. Pakistani officials later said the shelling lasted between one and two hours, and that one woman was killed and 25 civilians were wounded.

India said it launched the barrage because Pakistani forces had attacked three power stations the previous night.

The renewed border conflict only complicates the significant challenges Powell faces as he seeks to keep Pakistan and India engaged in the U.S. war against international terrorism, while preventing the two longtime enemies from lunging for each other's throats.

President Bush reacted with alarm to news of the flare-up, telling reporters at the White House that the U.S. government couldn't envision a worse time for the Indians and Pakistanis to engage each other.

"It is very important for India and Pakistan to stand down during our activities in Afghanistan, and for that matter, forever," Bush said. "One reason (Powell) is there is to talk to both sides about making sure that if there are tensions, that they be reduced."

Though his travel schedule is being kept secret, Powell is expected to meet with Pakistan's leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, on Tuesday. He will then leave Pakistan to visit New Delhi before setting off for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in Shanghai later in the week.

Talks will focus on U.S. operations against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, and the al Qaeda terror group, calming the rivalry between the two bitter enemies for control of Kashmir, and the character of a possible new government for Afghanistan.

Pakistani government awaits update

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Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, tells CNN that most Pakistanis support their government in the fight against terrorism (October 15)

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Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said Sunday that officials are eager to hear Powell's assessment of the Afghan campaign, and how soon it may end. "Do we see light at the end of the tunnel, and what is it that needs to be done in order to bring this operation to a close?"

Bush has said the campaign may take "a year or two," a notion Pakistani officials say they understand but do not enjoy.

"It has been our hope right from the beginning that the military operation will be short and targeted," said Shamshad Ahmad, Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations. "We will wait, and we hope that these strikes will be over as soon as possible. Of course, the campaign against terrorism has to be a prolonged one."

Powell's visit comes despite growing anti-U.S. protests in Pakistan, with demonstrators in Karachi demanding that the nation's military rise up and oust Musharraf.

Musharraf, who took over in a bloodless military coup in 1999, is trying to balance internal Muslim anger over his backing of the U.S.-led strikes in neighboring Afghanistan, against his support of the West.

At a Sunday protest in Jacobabad -- near an airbase Islamabad has offered for use by the U.S. military -- police fired on thousands of stone-throwing demonstrators, killing at least one person and injuring a dozen others.

And as U.S. air raids over Afghanistan enter their second week, several Pakistani Islamic parties have called for a nationwide strike Monday to protest Powell's visit and the country's support for Washington.

Security is tight in cities across the Muslim country, with the army, police and paramilitary rangers deployed to prevent a repeat of Sunday's violent clashes.

The protests are being organized by a radical and vocal minority, Pakistani officials have said, and do not pose a threat to Musharraf's support within the country.

"The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan support the decision and policies of the government of Pakistan in fighting terrorism," Ahmad told CNN. The "fringe element" organizing the demonstrations, he said, "does not mean that there is any cause of concern or alarm as far as the government's position is concerned."

But a Newsweek magazine poll conducted Oct. 11-12 appears to cast doubt on that belief. A sampling of Pakistanis were asked: Do you consider Osama bin Laden a holy warrior or a terrorist? Eighty-two percent answered holy warrior. Six percent said terrorist.

Kashmir key

Pakistan Muslims
Many Muslims in Pakistan support prime terrrorist suspect Osama bin Laden.  

As well as boosting support for the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Powell is expected to try to curb violence between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

While the South Asian nuclear foes have been fighting over Kashmir for decades, tensions mounted after Pakistan-based militants ignited a car bomb in the Indian-held part of the territory earlier this month, killing 40 people.

The incident occurred as the United States was attempting to enlist the support of both countries in its global anti-terrorism coalition after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of supporting Islamic militants who want to end Indian rule in the region.

But as it struggles to quell the bloody rebellion in the Himalayan Kashmir region, India has been frustrated by what it sees as a U.S. focus on Afghanistan at the possible expense of a wider campaign against terrorism.

U.S. officials are concerned that India might take military action against guerrillas in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or against Islamic militant camps in Kashmir.

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

Future of Afghanistan

Also likely to top the agenda is the shape of a future Afghan government should the ruling Taliban fall.

This is also likely to be a touchy topic for the South Asian arch-rivals.

In the past, India and Pakistan have fought a proxy war in Afghanistan, with Islamabad supporting the Taliban and India, the Afghan opposition Northern Alliance.



 
 
 
 



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