NEW DELHI, Jan 17: The United States on Thursday asked India to start talks with Pakistan on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, but said it was India’s sovereign right to say when it would be opportune to do so.

Powell, whose arrival in New Delhi was delayed due to bad weather, said he had brought some fresh ideas to help revive peace talks between the South Asian rivals but insisted on revealing them only after meeting Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Friday.

Speaking at a news conference following a brief meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, Powell appeared to be batting for President Pervez Musharraf and his peace overtures, although he did seem to be struggling on the rough Indian turf somewhat.

Powell said he was aware of India’s conditions for resuming talks with Pakistan but deftly underscored that some of the key concerns were not being ignored by Gen Musharraf.

“It’s a conversation we have had before, this point he has made to me many times,” Powell said after first round of talks with his Indian counterpart at Delhi’s Hyderabad House. “(India says) that words are one thing and express changes in policy is another thing. That they are looking for action on the ground. It’s perfectly understandable,” Powell said.

Then in a quick balancing act, he added: “We have seen some action in terms of arrest of extremists, we have seen some action in terms of banning of organizations in a variety of other actions, with respect to closing down the offices of these organizations. And it is up to India to make a judgment as a sovereign democratic nation as to whether these actions are sufficient basis for them to change the policies that they are pursuing at the moment. But as the minister just said President Musharraf did make an important statement to the people of Pakistan and to the international community and we will be monitoring his actions in the days and weeks ahead. This is also a conversation I had with him in Islamabad.”

Singh said India was ready to cooperate with Pakistan in the fight against terrorism and said he had already expressed his appreciation of Gen Musharraf’s address of Jan 12.

“Am I ready to take further steps? India has always been ready and shall be ready to take further steps but I have to see action on the ground,” Singh said. “We have welcomed what Gen Musharraf said in his speech on the 12th of January. It was largely addressed to reforming society and polity within Pakistan. I said then and I repeat that we wish the people of Pakistan well and we also wish that all the statements and the announcements that Gen Pervez Musharraf has made really do translate themselves into action, for that will, in terms of the management of external affairs, contribute greatly to the benefit of international community and its fight against international terrorism. And we will cooperate and welcome fully with Gen Pervez Musharraf in that regard and as soon as we see demonstration of action.”

Both Powell and Singh promised to meet the press together again on Friday, presumably for a more detailed briefing.

Weather was not the only worry when Powell arrived. Hawkish officials were in business for days before he landed.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan said Indian troops would remain at the borders till Pakistan deports the 20 terrorists and criminals wanted in India and stops pushing in militants.

Referring to Pakistan’s assertion that it would not hand over any Pakistani to India, he said Gen Musharraf could hand over Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim, two Mumbai underworld leaders India says have taken refuge in Pakistan.

In case, Gen Musharraf refuses to deport them, “our patience will run out,” Mahajan said. “If the United States could ask for Osama bin Laden, why can’t India ask for Tiger Memon and Dawood?” he said.

Powell was asked about this latest tangle in the India-Pakistan standoff. He said: “India will be sending more information with regard to the individuals.” He indicated that some kind of action was possible against non-Pakistanis listed by India, while Pakistan would decide what measures to take against its own citizens.

Powell’s visit coincided with the presence in New Delhi of former US Secretary of State, Dr Henry Kissinger, who met Indian leaders including New Delhi’s pointman for Kashmir K.C. Pant.

“I don’t think the US can play a role between India and Pakistan because it’s an issue between the two countries themselves,” Dr Kissinger told Star News. “Some sense of proportion should be introduced into individual countries, but I am not in favour of a mediating role between India and Pakistan, I never have been,” he said. “I think what is driving the two sides to a confrontation is that they inhabit the same geography. A war between them would create a whole new set of problems. Even after a victory, it would add another element of grievance in an already tense situation.”

Kissinger who had an hour-long meeting with Union Home Minister L.K. Advani at his North Block office, told reporters that the US was opposed to state-sponsored terrorism “no matter where it emanated from”.

Extending “strong support” to the Indian government for playing a constructive role in the fight against terrorism, he said India and Pakistan should join hands to solve the Kashmir problem.

The American leader asserted that he was in the capital to “educate himself and not to push through any politics.”

India’s interlocutor on Kashmir K.C. Pant met the former US Secretary of State and the US Ambassador Robert Blackwill.

Though Kissinger maintained that there was no specific agenda for talks, official sources said that the US team discussed the Kashmir issue extensively besides deliberating on the issue of de-escalation of tension on the Indo-Pakistan border.

The American team also spoke about various measures initiated by New Delhi and state governments to bring down the level of violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

“I have come here to educate myself on a few facts about Kashmir and there was no specific agenda of our talks with Pant,” Kissinger told reporters after a 50-minute long meeting with the Centre’s interlocutor.

Asked whether the situation at the Indo-Pakistan border was volatile, Kissinger, without a direct reference to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s speech, said: “The situation concerns everybody but I hope the atmosphere has improved since the weekend.”

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