Bush, Russian chief join forces

Tag-teaming diplomats urge Pakistan to avert war with India

? President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing South Asia is catapulting toward war, joined forces Saturday in pressuring Pakistan’s president to curb cross-border violence in Kashmir and ease tensions with neighboring India.

The double-team diplomacy came after Pakistan launched the first in a series of missile tests Saturday despite objections from the United States and Russia. The stakes are enormous: India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and they have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir.

“There’s no benefit of war,” Bush said with Putin at his side. “There’s no benefit of a clash that could eventually lead to a broader war.”

The long-running conflict, which flared last week after an attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir, threatens the fragile alliance Bush forged last year with Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in the war against terrorism. Pakistan may divert troops from its border with Afghanistan to the Kashmir boundaries, hampering U.S. efforts to contain and capture al-Qaida fighters and their terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

“We’re deeply concerned about the rhetoric. It is very important for President Musharraf to … do what he said he’s going to do … on terror, and that is stop the incursions across the line,” Bush said.

Missile test draws anger

Putin invited Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to talks early next month aimed at defusing the crisis, and criticized Pakistan for the missile test.

“Of course, the testing while there is escalating tension really aggravates the situation, and Russia is concerned and sorry about that,” Putin said.

The leaders were touring the Hermitage Museum in Putin’s hometown when they stopped briefly to address the India-Pakistan conflict. Musharraf’s government had just launched a medium-range Ghauri missile 900 miles far enough to reach deep into India. It can carry both a conventional and nuclear warhead.

Even as India shrugged off the missile test, its forces and Pakistani troops shelled each other’s position Saturday. Separately, a fierce gunbattle left at least three suspected Islamic militants and two government soldiers dead in Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in India. Islamic militants have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Muslim Pakistan.

Bush did not mention the missile test, but Secretary of State Colin Powell said the administration was disappointed.

“I don’t think it was a particularly useful thing to do right now,” said Powell, who is traveling with Bush.

Conflict has evolved

Tensions between the two nuclear-arm countries skyrocketed after an attack last week at an army camp in Kashmir that killed 34 people, mostly the wives and children of Indian soldiers. India blamed the assault on Islamic militants based in Pakistan. In ensuing days, dozens have died in cross-border shelling in the divided province.

In January, Musharraf delivered a nationally televised speech in which he promised to crack down on terrorism. Days later, he banned five Islamic militant groups two of them accused by India of a deadly December attack on the Indian parliament. Those groups had long worked in tandem with Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence organizations.

“But we do not believe that action is yet complete or has totally satisfied the statements that he made earlier that all activity would be stopped,” Powell said.

Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, also traveling with Bush, have telephoned their counterparts in both countries in an effort to defuse tensions. The president has made no such calls on his trip.

Putin and Bush weighed in on the conflict one day after they signed a landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty and pledged to begin a new era of cooperation. As if to underscore their commitment, the two leaders stood side by side and pledged to work together for peace in South Asia.

“Vladimir and I have talked about this and he’s … going to meet soon at a conference,” said Bush, who had spent the night with his wife, Laura, at Putin’s home.

Future meetings called

Cued by Bush, the Russian leader announced that he had invited Musharraf and Vajpayee to a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of a summit of the Council on Cooperation and Confidence Measures in Asia to be held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on June 3-5.

Bush said he hoped the conference would help bring “calm and reason to the region.”

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in a news conference here, did not say whether Putin would meet with both leaders at the same time or separately.

Pakistan welcomed Putin’s initiative for arranging talks between its leader and the Indian prime minister.

The Indian Foreign Ministry said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be attending the Almaty summit and would hold talks with Putin. But ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao said there was nothing yet to suggest that Vajpayee and Musharraf would meet one on one.

Bush travels to France today and Monday before ending his weeklong Europe trip in Italy on Tuesday.