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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Political respite for Kashmir?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The earthquake which has hit both Pakistani- and Indian-controlled Kashmir will have favourable political effects - but differences are so deep that they are not likely to be bridged.

Earthquake victim
Pakistan will be anxious not to alienate Kashmiris

There has been an important gesture - a telephone call offering help from the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The offer matched one from Pakistan after the earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2001. That paved the way for a meeting between President Musharraf and the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Gestures help but do not resolve underlying problems.

Differences remain

India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir, which despite its Muslim majority was taken into India by its Maharaja after independence from Britain. Two wars have been fought over it and it is now divided by a Line of Control.

And it is not clear what form Indian help would take. What the Pakistanis need above all is helicopters and the troops to go with them, but the idea of sending Indian troops to Pakistani Kashmir is almost unthinkable.

So both governments might stress the desire for co-operation without dwelling too much on the detail.

(Update: as of Tuesday 11 October, it was expected that an Indian air force plane loaded with 25 tons of supplies -- medicines, blankets and tents -- would be sent.)

This approach is very much in line with their current policies of defusing tension over Kashmir.

During the summer they signed an agreement laying down a series of measures to minimise the risk of conflict, including warning each other of nuclear tests and setting up a hotline between their foreign ministries. This hotline has been used in the present situation.

Pakistan preoccupied

Behind the diplomatic rapprochement, there may also be more subtle shifts of power and influence. And here it is India which might be the beneficiary.

Pakistan has been affected proportionately much harder. It is therefore more preoccupied by disaster relief and will be for some time.

It will also have domestic considerations to take care of, having to ensure that it does not alienate Kashmiris by failing to provide sufficient help.

President Musharraf will be fighting to retain his authority in the country by displaying leadership and drive.

Inevitably, therefore, it will not be in a position to put pressure on India for a political solution in Kashmir which is nowhere near anyway.

(Update: The United States has seen the danger of neglecting General Musharraf, one of its key regional allies. It has sent eight helicopters from Afghanistan and has pledged $50m in aid. Israel has also offered help and was waiting to hear if it would be accepted.)

On the ground, the Islamic militants who have been fighting India have themselves suffered.

Reports from Pakistani Kashmir indicate that many activists belonging to Lashkar-e-Toiba died in the earthquake. This organisation, while outlawed by Pakistan, is still active.

The upshot is likely to be at least a temporary easing of the security situation for India, though some attacks will no doubt continue.

Aceh parallels

It is also important to follow up what has happened politically in Sri Lanka and Indonesia since the tsunami.

They provide contrasts - good progress in Indonesia but less in Sri Lanka.

The tsunami killed at least 130,000 people in the Indonesian province of Aceh and forced a rethink by the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) which was fighting for independence.

Acehnese rebel weapons
There are hopes of an end to violence in Aceh

After years of insisting that its goal was independence, Gam resumed talks with the Indonesian government and made clear it was prepared to at least suspend that ambition.

The leadership argued that it was going to be impossible to rebuild Aceh while it remained a conflict zone. It would also have known from its own support bases that people in Aceh wanted their villages rebuilt, their dead buried, and access to basics like drinking water, rather than more talk of fighting or independence.

Following talks in Finland, a peace deal was signed in August which made clear how central the tsunami had been to its genesis. The document's third paragraph read: "The parties are deeply convinced that only the peaceful settlement of the conflict will enable the rebuilding of Aceh after the tsunami."

The peace deal foresees Gam handing in its weapons and the army withdrawing troops, with more autonomy for Aceh and elections in 2008.

Longer term, some people are talking about it taking a decade to rebuild Aceh's infrastructure.

BBC News website Asia-Pacific editor Angus Foster says that while that is going on - and assuming Indonesia manages the process with sensitivity - there are hopes that the memories of past violence can be gradually laid to rest.

Nationalist pressure

In Sri Lanka it has not been so easy.

Tamil Tiger rebel
There are no early prospects for a settlement in Sri Lanka

Under pressure from international aid donors, the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels agreed on a share-out of aid but this has been challenged by Sri Lankan nationalists who are trying to get it set aside.

There has been no progress towards a political solution, though the three-year-old ceasefire has held.

With President Kumaratunga now at the end her two terms of office, presidential elections are being held next month.

BBC Sinhala service editor Priyath Liyanage says nobody wants to go back to war, and a lot of the longer-term foreign aid promised is linked to peace, which provides an incentive.

But the government presidential candidate, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, is committed to ending the aid agreement with the Tamil Tigers under pressure from the right, our correspondent says, so there are no early prospects for a political settlement.



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