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Armitage: US  Remains Commited to Reducing India-Pakistan Tensions - 2002-08-23

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, wrapping up a visit to India before heading to Pakistan, says the United States remains committed to helping to reduce tensions between the two countries. Mr. Armitage's visit coincided with renewed sparring between the rival countries, as Pakistan accused Indian forces of attacking a Pakistani post in disputed Kashmir, which India strongly denied.

After talks with Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes and other senior national security officials, Mr. Armitage said the United States remains committed to doing everything possible to reduce tensions in the region. "There has been entirely too much violence, as a general matter, and we will do whatever we can," he said.

Mr. Armitage's visit is the latest in a series of visits by Western leaders aimed at ending the military standoff between India and Pakistan.

Indian officials told the visiting American diplomat that Islamic militants have continued to cross into Indian Kashmir, despite Pakistan's promise to stop them. The promise from Pakistan had followed a visit to the region by Mr. Armitage three months ago, and resulted in lowering tensions. Pakistan denies the Indian charges, saying the government is not supporting any infiltration of rebels, although some individuals may be slipping through the border.

The issue keeps tensions simmering. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both countries remain mobilized on their borders, and routinely exchange artillery fire.

Hours after Mr. Armitage arrived in India, Pakistani officials said Indian soldiers had launched a major attack on a Pakistani army post in Kashmir, and "bombed the area" after suffering heavy casualties.

Indian defense officials strongly denied that any attack had taken place, calling it "a total fabrication." India's defense secretary, Subir Datta, called the allegations baseless. "This allegation of the Pakistan government is totally false and baseless," he said. "It is reiterated that Indian armed forces have neither crossed the Line of Control, nor attacked any Pakistan post whatsoever. There is also absolutely no question of having used any air power."

Mr. Armitage did not comment on the latest incident, which analysts say underlines the difficulties in reducing tensions between the two countries.

Mr. Armitage's visit comes weeks before India plans to hold state elections in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan has called the upcoming elections a farce. Indian officials have expressed concern about attempts by Pakistani-backed Islamic militants to disrupt the polls by stepping-up violence in the region.

Mr. Armitage said elections in Indian Kashmir should be free and fair. He also said the United States remains concerned about the possibility of violence in the run-up to the polls. "We want the elections to be free and fair and open," said Richard Armitage. "There have been some difficulties historically in this, but it looks to this visitor that the government of India is quite intent on having these [as] free and fair and open as possible. We are concerned about the possibilities of violence, obviously, and this is something we will be discussing, as I travel further on this mission."

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir, which is divided between them, and has been the cause of two of the three wars the two countries have fought.