WASHINGTON, June 15: In a major development, US President Bill Clinton today asked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to immediately pull out his forces from the Indian territory in Kashmir, apparently making it a precondition for ending the fighting between the two countries.
After his 20-minute talk with Mr Sharif, White House spokesperson P J Crowly told newspersons that "the President basically indicated that he did not see how progress could be made on this issue until those forces (which had crossed the Line of Control) are withdrawn".
Asked about the reaction of Prime Minister Sharif to Mr Clinton’s suggestion to withdraw the Pakistani troop, Mr Crowley parried the question saying, "I will just leave it that to the Pakistani Government."
The President is understood to have warned Mr Sharif that without the troop pullout there could be no possibility of ending the fighting which had gone for more than a week.
Sharif assured Clinton that Pakistan remained committed to dialogue process with India, an official statement said in Islamabad.
Pakistan has always sought a peaceful solution of this dispute and will persevere in its efforts, the statement quoted Sharif as saying.
Mr Clinton yesterday called Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is understood to have praised him for showing restraint in handling such a delicate situation.
Mr Crowley recalled the telephone talk that Mr Clinton had with Mr Vajpayee yesterday and said he had asked him to resume direct talks with Pakistan to halt fighting in Kashmir.
"Both sides need to continue to show restraint because clearly there is a danger of escalation," he added.
The spokesman, however, did not spell out the additional steps, if any, that the Clinton administration had in mind to defuse the situation, about which the President is stated to be personally concerned from the very outset and had written separately to the two Prime Ministers.
"We remain engaged with both the Governments," he added.
Mr Clinton, by telling Mr Nawaz Sharif, rather bluntly to pull out Pakistani troops from the Indian side, has openly supported India’s stand that the trouble in the Kargil sector has been created by Pakistani army and that the regular Pakistani jawans were fighting along with the infiltrators.
Mr Clinton’s gesture came after Mr Vajpayee’s speech that India would have no talks with Pakistan till it withdraws its troops from the Indian territory. Apparently, the US shares India’s view that Pakistani army had crossed the Line of Control (LoC).
Crowley admitted that Pakistani forces have crossed over the Line of Control in Kashmir.
Both sides need to show restraint because clearly there is a danger of escalation, Crowley said.
Meanwhile, the State Department spokesman James Rubin also pointed out that infiltrators in the Indian side of the Line of Control have come from Pakistan.
To a question, Rubin said we have taken the view, if both sides want us to play a role, we would want to be helpful. But that has been our longstanding position and that has not changed.
To another question, he said we have seen press reports that Pakistan has accused India of using chemical weapons. We have no evidence to support this assertion.
He appreciated that the two sides continued to hold talks on telephone on the Kargil issue. We are encouraged that Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers continue their direct discussions on Kargil by telephone.
In our view, neither party has an interest in seeing this crisis escalate. At the same time we are disappointed that India and Pakistan have been unable to make more progress towards resolution of this crisis, Rubin said.
The United States remains in contact with the Indian and Pakistani Governments to express our strong concern and urge them to show restraint and respect the Line of Control that they agreed to 27 years ago as part of the Simla agreement.
Perhaps in his conversation yesterday with Vajpayee, the President conveyed this message, Rubin said.
The President is leaving for Cologne, Germany, tonight to attend the summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrial nations beginning on Friday. The Kashmir situation is expected to come up for discussion there.
In a statement on June 10, the G-8 Foreign Ministers had called upon "India and Pakistan to respect the LoC, to work for an immediate cessation of fighting, and to return to the negotiating table in the spirit of the Lahore declaration."
Deputy National Security Advisor to the President, Mr James B Steinberg, who briefed the press on the forthcoming summit yesterday, gave the indication that the war-like situation in Kargil might come up at the G-8 summit.
"I would not be surprised if that topic came up, but there is no agreement one way or the other." Last year, the gathering discussed the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan.
He said the dinner at the summit on Friday would provide an opportunity to the leaders for a broad-ranging discussion, typically focussing on political issues. "The agenda is never fixed in advance, but its really up to the leaders themselves," he added.
"We, obviously, take this (issue) very seriously. We have urged all sides to exercise maximum restraint, to follow up in the spirit of the Lahore agreement, to try to reach a resolution of this and to intensify the diplomatic contacts."
Earlier, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, giving details of the Clinton-Vajpayee telephone talk, said, "the President, for his part, encouraged the Prime Minister to continue to exercise restraint, respect the LoC and find a way to return to the direct talks through the Lahore process."
In reply to a question, he said the Clinton administration was disappointed that the talks between External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz "were not more productive."
The spokesman, however, said "I think the President made the point that this is an issue that ultimately has to be resolved bilaterally. And it’s important and I think he stressed the fact that we need to go back to the process of direct talks that were fostered at the Lahore summit."
Later, an administration official said the President was "very focussed" on the issue, taking a personal interest in defusing the war-like situation in the Kargil sector. Earlier, he had written letters to the two Prime Ministers stressing the need for finding a solution through direct talks.
The official said the United States continued to urge Mr Vajpayee to keep the lines of communication open with Pakistan. (Agencies)
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