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State Dept. Launches Mission to Ease Indian-Pakistani Tensions

Secretary of State Colin Powell has sent his deputy, Richard Armitage, on a mission to South Asia aimed at encouraging India and Pakistan to continue to work together in solving disputes. Mr. Powell told reporters Monday it is a "moment of opportunity" to ease tension between the two regional powers.

Mr. Armitage, who has been the Bush administration's "point-man" on South Asian diplomacy, will travel first to Islamabad and then to New Delhi on a mission officials here hope will reinforce the efforts at détente between the two regional rivals.

The sudden warming of relations began last month when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered to engage in talks with Islamabad and by restoring diplomatic relations and transportation links.

Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali reciprocated by formally inviting his Indian counterpart for high-level dialogue on resolving the two countries' differences.

The United States has been actively encouraging the trend, with Mr. Powell speaking by telephone with Indian Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, Prime Minister Jasmali and Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff.

In a talk with reporters after meeting NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, Mr. Powell called it a "moment of opportunity" in South Asia and said the United States will be ready to assist both sides as they try to move forward on problem issues including Kashmir.

"I think we have seen this positive development and we should appreciate this positive development and build on it," he said. "Certainly all of the people of the region, Kashmiris and others, want to life a peaceful life, want the same thing that anyone else wants in life, and that's a safe, secure environment in which one can raise a family and look to a more promising future for your children. And we will work with both sides as they begin this new series of steps that we hope will lead to a more positive relationship between the two nations."

Both Secretary Powell and Mr. Armitage have made multiple trips to the region to try to defuse tensions between the South Asian powers over Kashmir, which nearly flared into full-scale hostilities in late 2001 and again in the middle of last year.

Officials here have been careful not to describe the renewed U.S. diplomatic involvement as mediation, since India has opposed such a U.S. role.

Mr. Armitage, accompanied on the six-day trip by Assistant Secretary of South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca, will also stop in Afghanistan before returning to Washington.