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Fewer Militants Crossing into Indian Kashmir, says Minister - 2002-06-19

India's defense minister says there has been a significant decline in the number of militants crossing from Pakistani territory into Indian Kashmir. Indian officials have called this the key condition for New Delhi to end its six month military standoff with Pakistan.

Despite the acknowledgement that Islamabad is acting to stop Islamic militants from entering Indian territory, the defense minister ruled out an immediate pull back of troops. He said soldiers would continue to remain on the borders with Pakistan.

India sent tens of thousands of troops to its borders with Pakistan after an attack on its parliament in December, prompting a similar deployment by Islamabad.

But Mr. Fernandes told a domestic television news channel that India could end its huge military deployment if it was convinced that Muslim militants had stopped crossing into Indian territory. He said New Delhi will gauge infiltration levels over one or two months, and then, "if we believe that the situation is normalizing, then we can do the job of calling back our army".

India accuses Pakistan of sending armed militants to wage a separatist rebellion against Indian rule. But Islamabad says infiltration has stopped, and denies aiding the militants.

Although troops from both countries continue to remain on the border, there has been an easing of tensions between the two sides in the past two weeks. New Delhi has recalled its warships, troops are now being allowed to take leave, and Pakistani civilian aircraft can use Indian airspace.

Defense officials say the intensity of cross-border clashes in Kashmir has also reduced in recent days, and the border is much quieter. The almost daily exchanges of artillery and mortar began a month ago, killing and wounding dozens of people on both sides, and forcing thousands of border villagers to evacuate their homes.

Pakistan has said it will recall its troops once India does so.