July 1999 News

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Clinton, Sharif agree on Kashmir withdrawal

4 July 1999
Reuters

WASHINGTON- President Bill Clinton and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reached an agreement on Sunday under which guerrillas who crossed into the Indian-held sections of Kashmir will withdraw, U.S. officials said.

The agreement, if carried out, would appear to defuse a conflict that has pitted Indian armed forces against the guerrillas and that has been described as the worst crisis between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan in nearly 30 years.

"It was agreed between the president and the prime minister that concrete steps will be taken for the restoration of the Line of Control," Clinton and Sharif said in a joint statement after three hours of hastily arranged talks in Washington.

"The president urged an immediate cessation of the hostilities once these steps are taken," it added after the discussions, which consumed the better part of Clinton's U.S. Independence Day holiday.

Although Pakistan has publicly maintained that it has no control over the guerrillas, U.S. officials said the joint statement meant the insurgents would withdraw to the Pakistani side of the military line dividing the Himalayan province.

"Our understanding is that there will be withdrawal of the forces now," a senior U.S. official told reporters on condition that he not be identified. He declined to say exactly when the forces would pull out but added: "We would like to see positive steps in the very near future."

India launched an air and ground offensive on May 26 to dislodge what it says are Pakistan army regulars fighting alongside mercenaries who crossed the military line dividing the Himalayan province.

Although the major powers concur with India's description of the guerrillas, Pakistan has insisted it has no control over what it says are Muslim militants fighting for freedom in the two-thirds of Kashmir ruled by India. The joint statement finessed the point, failing to specify who would take the "concrete steps" to restore the Line of Control or to make any explicit acknowledgment that Pakistan might hold some sway over the guerrillas.

A Pakistani official told reporters Clinton and Sharif had had "a good discussion." Tariq Altaf, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called the joint statement "a positive development as it is vindication of our position that the Line of Control should be mutually respected."

Asked what concrete steps might be taken to restore it, he replied: "We will appeal to them to end the fighting ... they have achieved their purpose of highlighting the Kashmir dispute."

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since they won independence from Britain in 1947 over Kashmir. The latest conflict raised special alarm in Washington because of their tit-for-tat nuclear tests in May 1998.

In their statement, Clinton and Sharif said they shared the view that the recent conflict was "dangerous and contains the seeds of a wider conflict."

"They also agreed that it was vital for the peace of South Asia that the Line of Control in Kashmir be respected by both parties in accordance with their 1972 Simla Accord," it added.

Senior U.S. officials said the Simla Accord established the military line dividing the two thirds of Kashmir controlled by India and the one third held by Pakistan.

The statement also finessed another issue -- India's long-standing rejection of any outside mediation over Kashmir and Washington's resulting reluctance to play such a role, even though Clinton intervened with Pakistan in this instance.

The White House said Clinton had spoken to Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for about 10 minutes on Sunday to brief him on the talks.

The statement said Clinton stressed that the best way for the two countries to settle their differences, including Kashmir, was to continue the direct talks that began when their prime ministers met in Lahore in February.

"The president said he would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of those bilateral efforts once the sanctity of the Line of Control has been full restored," the statement said.

It also said Clinton, who canceled plans to visit India and Pakistan last year after they conducted their nuclear tests, intended to pay "pay an early visit to South Asia."

U.S. officials declined to offer an date.

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