Wed, 29 Mar 2000

Kashmiris upset at Clinton visit

By Izhar Wani

SRINAGAR, India (AFP): Kashmir loomed large over U.S. President Bill Clinton's South Asia tour last week, but separatists here are angry that the president failed to launch any new initiative for the troubled region.

"We are disappointed that Kashmir was not given enough priority by Clinton in his talks with the Indian government," said Shabir Shah, a prominent separatist political leader who has spent more than 20 years in various Indian jails.

"We had attached high hopes to Clinton's South Asia trip," he said, "but unfortunately he concentrated mainly on trade- relations with India, and made passing references to Kashmir."

India and Pakistan's long standing territorial dispute over Kashmir and the 10-year Muslim insurgency in the Indian- controlled zone of the divided state were thrown into sharp relief the day before Clinton's visit began -- with the massacre of 36 Sikhs.

Clinton urged India and Pakistan to show restraint over Kashmir, respect the disputed border there and resume their stalled dialogue, but got little in the way of concessions from either side.

He also stressed that the United States would not act as a mediator in the dispute.

India trumpeted the visit as a diplomatic victory for New Delhi's stance on Kashmir -- a spin that was echoed by the militant groups fighting Indian rule in the region.

"Now America is openly siding with India, which shows that all anti-Islam forces are uniting against us," says Fazalur Rehman, the chief of the hardline Harkat-ul-Mujahideen militant outfit.

The Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen, a leading militant group, issued a press release Monday, vowing that Clinton's visit would have no impact on the separatist rebel movement.

"We should not look for help from people like Clinton. Allah will guide us to victory over infidels," the press release said.

However, Kashmir expert Sibte Sidiq said the presidential visit would prove a setback to the militants.

"Over the past decade their aim was to highlight the Kashmir issue through all means available so that international intervention became inevitable," Sidiq said.

"Clinton's no to mediation is a serious setback to those efforts."

Legal separatist organizations in Indian Kashmir had lobbied hard for an audience with Clinton during his stay in New Delhi, but failed to make any headway.

While he was in India, Clinton gave a television interview to a U.S. network in which he said he believed there were "elements" within the Pakistani government "that had supported those who engaged in violence in Kashmir."

He addressed the same issue during a television broadcast to the Pakistan people during his stopover on Saturday.

"No matter how great the grievance, it is wrong to support attacks against civilians across the Line of Control," he said, referring to the cease-fire line which divides the state.

The message went down well with pro-India politicians in Kashmir.

"He told Pakistan in no uncertain terms that international sympathy and intervention in Kashmir could not be won by provoking a bigger and bloodier conflict," said Ashok Khujuria, a state legislator from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist BJP party.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and claimed by both.

The Muslim insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir has claimed more than 25,000 lives since 1989.