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Kashmir casts shadow over U.S.-Pakistan talks

Quetta rally
Pro-Taliban regions of Pakistan went on strike Monday over Powell's visit  

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is meeting with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf just as the worst clashes in nearly a year have erupted in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Powell is visiting Islamabad and New Delhi in a bid to shore up support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which is targeting Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

But Powell may find it difficult to keep the anti-terror coalition cobbled together if nuclear foes India and Pakistan keep on firing at each over the disputed Himalayan state, which they both claim and have fought two of their three wars over.

Ahead of Powell's meeting in Pakistan, Indian troops attacked 11 Pakistani positions across the Line of Control that separates the two sides, breaking ten months of relative calm on the border.

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

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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Powell faces challenge in South Asia  
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The United States is watching the Kashmir conflict closely.

New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of supporting Islamic militants who want to end Indian rule in the region and is becoming frustrated by what it sees as a U.S. focus on Afghanistan at the possible expense of a wider anti-terror campaign.

The Kashmir outburst comes in the wake of anti-U.S. demonstrators clashing with authorities in Pakistani cities. Thousands of businesses across the country were closed on Monday, after a number of Islamic militant groups called for a work stoppage.

Muslims are angry at Islamabad for supporting the U.S.- led attacks in Afghanistan, which entered their second week on Monday.

Tough chore

Powell is meeting with Musharraf under tight security on Tuesday at a meeting which started at 11:00 a.m. local time, where he is likely to urge restraint on Kashmir.

U.S. President George W. Bush has already reacted with alarm to news of the Kashmir flare-up, telling reporters at the White House that Washington 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."

Even as Powell will try to put a lid on tensions in the region, Pakistan is sure to be looking for answers on when the United States will stop its air raids over neighboring Afghanistan.

Despite its position as a key member of the global anti-terror coalition, Islamabad has concerns about a long spell of military action in Afghanistan and fallout from civilian casualties.

As Musharraf tries to balance Muslim anger at the U.S. air raids with support for the West, a key question will be what the United States envisages for a future post-Taliban period in Afghanistan.

Afghan future

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

Musharraf has already said any new Afghan government must be friendly to Pakistan.

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.

Powell has already hinted that it may take time before the Taliban is driven from power and has urged the United Nations to play a major role in ensuring the next government is as representative as possible.

From Pakistan, Powell will proceed to India and then to Shanghai for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum at which the United States is expected to press participating countries to choke off the flow of funds to terrorist groups.


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