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From Fear to Hope and Back

As reports of “rising and easing” of tensions between India and Pakistan make the rounds, Pakistan’s shooting down of an Indian spy plane doesn’t seem to have further endangered the delicate situation.

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Indian Army soldiers maintain a tight vigil over the Pakistan side from a bunker

Though Indian officials have admitted losing the plane, which went down near the town of Raja Jang in Punjab province, the response from the Indian Defence Ministry was a studied one.

The shooting was described as "a routine matter". Meanwhile Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar urged restraint after its military said it had hoped that India had been taught a lesson by the incident.

"In a situation like this, responsible states must exercise utmost care to ensure that no provocation be made that might lead to escalation", he said.

Tensions easing?

Though the nuclear-armed neighbours have engaged in bellicose rhetoric and mud-slinging for months, the tone in the past two days has been tempered and even been guardedly optimistic.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who wrapped up his diplomatic visit to the region yesterday sounded positive as he told reporters in New Delhi that Pakistan President Musharraf had committed to end cross-border infiltration. He said tensions between the two sides "were a little bit down".

Rumsfeld still sceptical

Donald Rumsfeld in Indien

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

But US Secretary of Defence and Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld (photo) is not moved by the positive conclusions drawn by Armitage. Rumsfeld who visits the region next week believes that the threat of war between nuclear-powers India and Pakistan is still very real. "There’s absolutely nothing that has changed the situation for the better", he was reported to have said.

Reports from the flashpoint of Kashmir - where the two neighbours have massed a million troops after an attack on the Indian Parliament last December - seem to confirm his scepticism.

The two sides were reported to have continued to trade heavy artillery and gunfire across the Line of Control (LOC) overnight. The Indian newspaper The Times of India reported that two civilians lost their lives near Poonch.

Infiltration gradually lessening

The main sticking point between the two neighbours remains the infiltration of Pakistan-sponsored Muslim militants into Indian-administered Kashmir. Islamabad says it only provides diplomatic and moral support to what it calls the Kashmiri people’s struggle for self-determination.

But even that seems to be gradually easing as the US State Department said there had been a significant decline in the number of infiltration from the Pakistani side of the LOC, which divides the disputed terrorise.

Even Indian officials are reported to be pleased by Musharraf’s promise to end infiltration but have said they would study the situation on the ground before responding.

Aid embargo on Pakistan?

Meanwhile an unconfirmed report by the Financial Times on Friday suggested that western governments are considering withholding economic aid to Pakistan as a means of exerting pressure of General Musharraf to clamp down on terrorism.

The US is believed to be against such a proposal because of fears that the move would destabilise the administration in Islamabad at a tense moment in its stand-off with India.

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