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New Hopes of Peace Between Rivals India, Pakistan Faded By Year's End - 2001-12-25

The year 2001 began with hopes that South Asian arch rivals India and Pakistan would find their way along the path to peace, but instead, by the end of the year, tensions between the nuclear-armed nations had risen to a new high.

An unusual calm between Indian and Pakistani forces along the usually tense Kashmir border early in the year encouraged Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to break a frosty two-year silence with Pakistan and invite Islamabad's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf for a summit meeting in the North Indian city of Agra.

But at the July meeting, the two countries failed to bridge their profound differences over Kashmir, the disputed region that is claimed by both, and which lies at the heart of their bitter relations.

General Musharraf wanted the dispute over Kashmir to dominate peace talks. The Indian Prime Minister said a meaningful peace process could be pursued only if Pakistan stopped sponsoring what India calls "cross border terrorism," referring to Islamabad's support to Kashmiri militant groups. Pakistan says it only gives these groups diplomatic support. India says it arms and funds them.

Decades-old hostilities and suspicions resurfaced and the two leaders failed to even sign a joint statement. From then on, there was a continuous downward slide in bilateral relations.

The September 11 attacks on the United States, and the ensuing international campaign against terrorism, further complicated the relationship between India and Pakistan, although both are allies in the campaign.

New Delhi was among the first countries to offer support to the anti-terror campaign and hoped it would also focus on reining in Kashmiri militant groups, which India equates with the al-Qaida forces Washington is battling.

Such hopes evaporated quickly as Pakistan become a frontline ally in the United States war against terrorism. New Delhi expressed skepticism about Islamabad's role in the coalition, and reiterated accusations that India is a victim of terrorism sponsored by Pakistan. Islamabad strongly denies the charge.

Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani urged the international community not to ignore what he called terrorism directed at India. "I say in this fight, Pakistan being on our side in this battle against terrorism, is of advantage to the international community and therefore we do not find fault with America's effort to have Pakistan as a front-ranking ally. But at the same time, what we emphasize is that this should be an earnest attempt on the part of the world to eliminate terrorism in all its aspects. It should not be merely an attempt to avenge September 11," Mr. Advani said.

In October, a bomb attack on the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly that killed 38 people raised tempers in New Delhi and tensions on the Kashmir border. Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged heavy fire.

A steady stream of senior American officials visited New Delhi to urge restraint, and reassured India that its concerns on terrorism would be addressed. Among them, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. "The United States and India are united against all terrorism, and that includes the terrorism that has been directed against India as well," Mr. Powell said.

But a daring suicide assault on India's parliament on December 13, triggered a rapid deterioration in relations. India accused Pakistan's military intelligence of supporting two Islamic militant groups that allegedly led the attack, and demanded that Islamabad disband them. Pakistan denied the charge, and asked New Delhi for evidence.

Prime Minister Vajpayee promised a "do-or-die" battle against terrorism. Cabinet ministers led by Mr. Advani promised retaliation. "We will liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors, whoever they are, where ever they are," Mr. Advani said. There were calls from ruling party lawmakers to follow the lead of U.S.-led strikes in Afghanistan and send security forces to smash bases of Kashmiri militant groups, which New Delhi says are situated in Pakistani Kashmir.

A renewed message of restraint from the United States found fewer listeners in India this time. Mr. Vajpayee says India will use diplomacy to put pressure on Islamabad to crack down on Muslim militant groups, but warned that the government is keeping a military option open, in case that does not happen. Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Khan said his country would respond if attacked. "We hope that the situation would not be allowed to get out of hand, it would not be allowed to escalate. Pakistan is excising maximum restraint. Pakistan wants a resolution of these problems through peaceful means, through negotiations," said Mr. Khan.

India also recalled its ambassador from Islamabad, a step only taken once since the two countries gained independence in 1947. Pakistan called India's action "arrogant" but said it will not retaliate in kind. New Delhi also terminated a bus and train service between the two countries.

The tense standoff has raised fears of an armed confrontation between the rivals. Both nations are reported to be moving forces towards their frontiers, and their armies are on full alert.

Most analysts feel the latest confrontation is likely to stop short of a war, but also say that relations between India and Pakistan have reached a new low, and are unlikely to see an early revival.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001