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US Considers 'Ordered Departure' of Non-Essential Diplomatic Personnel From India - 2002-05-31

State Department officials say a decision is near on the possible evacuation of non-essential personnel and dependents from U.S. diplomatic posts in India because of the danger of a South Asian war. A similar evacuation of U.S. personnel from Pakistan was ordered in March.

A senior official here says that Secretary of State Colin Powell is considering a so-called "ordered departure" of non-essential personnel from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta, and that a decision could come "any day now."

Such a move would affect several hundred U.S. dependents and officials and again underscores the degree of U.S. concern about the danger that the current confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir could flare into full-scale war between the two nuclear-armed regional powers.

The official said an evacuation of diplomatic dependents would also mean a State Department recommendation to an estimated 60,000 private U.S. citizens in India to leave the country.

He said any evacuation could probably be carried out with existing commercial aviation service, though if necessary, the U.S. government could charter flights or arrange a military airlift.

U.S. citizens were advised only last week to "defer" travel to India and Pakistan because of a deteriorating security situation because of Kashmir.

The discussion of the possible evacuation came a day after the State Department, sharpening its language on the issue, warned that a "serious conflagration" could erupt from the current tensions in South Asia and that "irresponsible elements" might try to provoke such a conflict.

Briefing reporters here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the attack Thursday on an Indian police post near the Pakistani border that killed three people, blamed by India on Muslim militants, was just such a provocation.

"In the current charged climate of tension between two nuclear-armed neighbors poised for war, this attack appears to be aimed at taking tensions to a higher level and undermining regional stability," said Mr. Boucher. "So we strongly condemn the latest incident. As I said, there is a danger that irresponsible elements such as these will try spark a conflict between India and Pakistan by engaging in terrorist provocations. And it's vital for everyone to do their utmost to reduce violence, lower the rhetoric and exercise restraint, bearing in mind that only terrorists would benefit from a war in South Asia."

Mr. Boucher cited repeated pledges by President Pervez Musharraf not to let Pakistani territory or territory controlled by Pakistan to be used for terrorist actions and said those are the commitments that the United States is, as he put it, "looking for him to carry out in fact."

The spokesman said Secretary Powell spoke by phone for a third straight day with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to discuss Mr. Straw's just-completed mission to India and Pakistan.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has crisis talks in Islamabad and New Delhi next Thursday and Friday, to be followed shortly thereafter by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has added South Asian stops to a previously planned mission to the Middle East.