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Blair to Mediate in Indo-Pak Stand-off

Hope is revived for defusing tensions, as India agrees to hold talks with Pakistan. But sporadic firing still continues across the border, as British Premier Tony Blair decides to play mediator.

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An Indian Army soldier walks among the debris of a house destroyed in the firing along the border

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in a New Year’s speech on Tuesday offered to hold peace talks with Pakistan if it abandoned its "anti-Indian mentality" and its support for militant Kashmiri separatists operating from its soil.

Peace talks at SAARC?

The move revives hope that Vajpayee and Pakistan Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf will meet and talk on the sidelines of the upcoming SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Nepal on January 4.

So far, Indian officials have rejected speculation that the two leaders or their foreign ministers will hold talks during the summit. Pakistani officials, however, maintain that in such a gathering leaders of the two countries will have no option but to have a face-to-face contact. British Prime Minister Tony Blair plans a trip to both countries before the conference begins on Friday in an effort to cool tensions.

Nuclear treaty of 1991 renewed

In another encouraging sign, both India and Pakistan have renewed a nuclear treaty signed in 1991 that prohibits attacking each other’s nuclear installations.

The Indian Foreign Ministry in a statement on Tuesday said that both India and Pakistan had exchanged lists through diplomatic channels of the names of the relevant nuclear facilities.

Trading accusations

But the wrangling between the two nations continues, each accusing the other of escalating the situation along the border.

Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee says he does not want war and would consider talks on disputed Kashmir only when Pakistan acts against cross border terrorism.

Pakistan, on the other hand, accuses India of continuing its military build-up along the border. India denies the charge, saying its defensive build-up is "more or less complete".

Reining in terrorists

Pakistan has arrested the leaders of the two militant outfits that India holds responsible for the suicide attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13.

But Delhi is still not satisfied – it wants the two militant separatist groups wiped out completely. India has long accused Pakistan of sponsoring about a dozen groups fighting its rule in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, part of the Himalayan region of Kashmir, where Pakistan and China also hold territory.

Pakistan denies sponsoring the groups, although it says it does provide moral support.

Since the attack on the India Parliament both New Delhi and Islamabad have scaled down diplomatic relations, halted air, rail and bus services across the border and deployed troops along its border in Kashmir areas in the biggest military build-up in almost 15 years.

Sporadic violence continues

Meanwhile Indian and Pakistani troops traded mortar and heavy machine gun fire across the frontier in Kashmir overnight as the fate of top-level talks to avert war remained uncertain.

At least 11 Pakistani soldiers were killed and 17 of their bunkers destroyed in retaliatory shelling and firing by Indian troops on Pakistani soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu-Poonch sector, Indian defence sources said on Tuesday.

Since the fierfights began Saturday night, two Indian soldiers have been killed and three injured in the firefights. Two Indian posts were also damaged, the sources said.

Blair to pour oil on troubled waters

The tensions on the border have prompted appeals for quiet from a host of international leaders, among them French President Jaques Chirac, Russian president Vladimir Putin and American President George W. Bush. This week, Blair looks set to join his colleagues.

Community leaders in Britain have warned that any major conflict between India and Pakistan could have repercussions for England, which is home to large Indian and Pakistani populations.

Details of Blair's planned visit to the two nations have been kept under wraps because of security reasons. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke to Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar. Straw welcomed the arrest of a leading Islamic militant and 22 other suspects. But he said more needed to be done to avert a full-scale conflict between the two nations.

Blair is first expected to arrive in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka on Thursday evening. Blair is likely to request Bangladesh to contribute trained troops to the International Security Assistance Force for maintaining peace in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Bangladesh had previously offered support to the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan, allowing use of its airspace and ports.

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