NEW DELHI, March 24: The United States and Britain held high-level talks with New Delhi on Monday to thwart any fresh tensions they feared could rise between Pakistan and India after unidentified gunmen massacred 24 Kashmiri Pundits in the Shopian region of Jammu and Kashmir earlier in the day, diplomats and officials said.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee presided over a meeting of the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS) at his residence after the grisly incident triggered fears of finger-pointing at Pakistan, the officials said.

The CCS will meet again after Tuesday when Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishan Advani visits the spot of the massacre in the Nandimarg village in southern Kashmir, the officials said.

The diplomats said there were well-founded fears that the killings of a large number of Hindus in Kashmir could spill into a fresh escalation of tensions with Pakistan.

They said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rang up Indian external affairs minister promptly to express his “deep shock and condolences on the massacre”.

He also asked that these condolences be conveyed to the families of the victims.

Mr Straw also asked Mr Sinha to convey British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s condolences to Mr Vajpayee. He hoped the incident would not lead to any escalation of tensions with Pakistan.

The United States, which together with Britain had played a lead role in defusing a menacing standoff last year between India and Pakistan, was equally prompt in conveying Washington’s concern to New Delhi.

An Indian official said US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Mr Sinha on the issue.

Apart from expressing his “regret and deep condolences at the loss of lives in Kashmir in the horrible terrorist attack,” Mr Powell also promised to speak to Pakistan “again about cross-border activity”, the official told Dawn.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed condemned the massacre, saying it was an unpardonable crime by militants to derail the peace process initiated in Jammu and Kashmir by his coalition government.

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