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Pakistan reinforces troops along Kashmir border

Indian and Pakistani diplomats urged to negotiate

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States estimates Pakistan has withdrawn half of the troops it had along its border with Afghanistan and sent them to the Kashmir border.

The movement took place just as the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, whose nations are in an escalating dispute over the control of Kashmir, smiled and shook hands at an economic summit meeting Wednesday.

The tense situation prompted U.S. President George W. Bush, who is on vacation at his Texas ranch, to speak with British Prime Minister Tony Blair Wednesday afternoon about the situation as part of "ongoing discussions about ways our two nations can work together to reduce tensions in the area", a White House official said.

The fighters, estimated at between 6,000 to 8,000 troops, had been deployed on the Afghan border as part of Pakistan's efforts to keep Taliban and al Qaeda members -- especially Osama Bin Laden -- from escaping into Pakistan.

U.S. military officials say they are concerned the withdrawal of half of them could make the border more passable than it already is.

The first Pakistani troops to leave the Afghan area were infantry and artillery. They would not have been necessarily equipped to catch fleeing terrorists, but would have helped to keep the border more secure.

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International pressure continues to build in an effort to persuade the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan to meet at some level during the summit in Kathmandu, Nepal, and stop the movement of troops along their shared border.

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar are in Kathmandu ahead of the start of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit on Friday. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are both to attend the summit.

Pakistani officials said Wednesday they would be willing to meet to discuss rising tensions between the two nations.

That offer came as Muslim militants in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar threw grenades at a police convoy outside the main gate of the Kashmir state assembly. At least 19 people were injured, police said.

Police said a grenade went off, injuring 13 people, including nine policemen. As rescue squads rushed to the scene, they said, another grenade was thrown, injuring six other people. No deaths were reported.

Earlier, Indian security officials said at least 15 people had been killed in the disputed region of Kashmir in the past 24 hours. They have blamed the attacks on Kashmiri militants.

Police said six Hindus, including two children, were shot dead while Indian soldiers reportedly killed six rebels in two gun battles.

Three other civilians were killed elsewhere in Kashmir in separate shootouts.

India and Pakistan have been pouring in extra troops and weaponry on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Relations between the two South Asian nuclear rivals have plummeted to their lowest level in decades following the December 13 suicide attack on the Indian parliament, which New Delhi has blamed on Kashmiri militant groups it says are supported by Pakistan.

India is demanding Pakistan shut down the two groups it says were involved and has handed the Pakistani authorities a list of suspects it believes were behind that attack and other crimes. India wants the suspects arrested.

The authorities in Islamabad, Pakistan, say they will not act against anyone on the list without evidence, which they say India has not yet provided.

Also Wednesday, Pakistan responded to published reports that Islamabad had changed its policy and has now cut off backing for Islamic militant groups fighting in Kashmir.

Using careful language, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said Pakistan's policy is and has always been to offer only moral and political support to the indigenous movement inside Kashmir. Khan said he had no knowledge of a change in policy.


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