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'Stay cool' Powell to urge S Asian foes

Kashmir suicide bomb
A suicide car bombing in the Indian-held part of Kashmir has heightened tensions  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Calling Kashmir one of the most dangerous places in the world, the U.S. State Department's No. 2 official has said Secretary of State Colin Powell will try to "lower the temperature" between India and Pakistan when he visits this week.

While the South Asian nuclear foes have been fighting for decades over the disputed region of Kashmir, which they both claim, tensions have heightened after Pakistan-based militants ignited a car bomb in the Indian-held part of the territory last week, killing 40 people.

The incident occurred as the United States was attempting to enlist the support of both countries in a global anti-terrorism coalition after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of supporting Islamic militants who want to end Indian rule in the region. But even as it struggles to quell the bloody rebellion in the Himalayan Kashmir region, India has been frustrated by what it sees as a U.S. focus on Afghanistan at the possible expense of a wider campaign against terrorism.

At a sensitive time for South Asia, U.S. officials are concerned that India might take military action against guerrillas in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or against Islamic militant camps in Kashmir.

A senior administration official told CNN that Powell will caution India not to take any action against Pakistan while its attention is diverted to the current U.S. military campaign against Afghanistan.

"We have to seize the moment," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Thursday, adding Powell wants to "probe the minds of the Pakistanis and Indians to see if there is not a way to lower the temperature."

'Stay cool'

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While a key part of Powell's South Asia visit is to lend support to Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's crucial role in helping America fight terrorism, the high-level U.S. official is also expected to reassure both leaders they are on the "same side" of the U.S. fight.

While there is no new initiative on Kashmir, Powell is expected to "listen to what they have to say and talk about ways to reduce anxiety," and stress the need to avoid provocation during this sensitive period.

"He will say it is important that there are no mistakes," one official said. "Stay cool, be calm."

In a clear sign that Pakistan is still keen to talk about the long-disputed Kashmir, Musharraf called Indian Prime Minister Atal Bejari Vajpayee this week.

'Can't tilt'

Pakistan has long sought a third party to mediate the Kashmir dispute, but a U.S. official said Washington is not likely to seek a mediator role, because of India's long-standing objection.

"We can't be seen as tilting toward Pakistan by offering," the official said. "And it would be rejected -- so what is the point?"

"We are going to make sure India does not feel slighted," another official said. Powell is expected to spend equal amounts of time in New Delhi and Islamabad.

The Indians have been "fantastic" in coming forward with a firm commitment to supply the United States with anything it needed in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Armitage added.

The Pentagon is likely to talk to New Delhi about how it can help with the military campaign against Afghanistan.

Weighting the balance

Since the U.S.-led strikes against Afghanistan began, the stability of Musharraf's government has become a main concern of the Bush administration.

Pakistan's large Islamic extremist population supports the ruling Taliban and prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, and has openly rejected Islamabad's support for the campaign.

But Armitage added "the consolidation of stability in Pakistan has been quicker and greater than we had originally expected," after Musharraf fired officials within the military and intelligence service who were thought to be pro-bin Laden.

Powell is likely to seek Pakistan's views about "what the shape of a future Afghanistan would look like," he added.

The United States has been talking with several Afghan opposition groups about forming a future broad-based government in the country.

CNN's State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report


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