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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 20:09 GMT 21:09 UK
Straw's steep learning curve
Jack Straw and Pervez Musharraf
Precise details of the talks remain confidential

When Jack Straw set out to do Britain's bit in the increasingly desperate efforts to ease tensions between India and Pakistan, he was careful to say he was under no illusions about the scale of the problem.


The trouble is, for all the best efforts of Mr Straw and others, Islamabad and Delhi - at the moment at least - are just too far apart

But even taking his judicious caution into account, the foreign secretary must be alarmed at just how intractable the crisis over Kashmir appears.

From the bellicose statements of Pakistan's leader on Monday to the fierce response from India on Tuesday, the mood music coming out of Delhi and Islamabad has hardly been soothing to the ear.

Any hope that the presence of a whole host of international politicians buzzing around the region on diplomatic missions would at least calm the rhetoric have been blown out the water by recent statements.

Trying

Mr Straw arrived in India on Tuesday night ahead of a round of meetings on Wednesday.

Indian soldier in Kashmir
The two sides have been firing at each other across the Kashmir border
Among others, the foreign secretary will have talks with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jaswsant Singh, the minister for external affairs.

Some may question whether a British foreign secretary can achieve anything to ease tensions in a dispute as deep as that over Kashmir and cross-border terrorism.

But as Mr Straw has said repeatedly during this trip, it would be wrong to not even bother trying.

'Clear action'

He has - rightly - been careful not to raise hopes of achieving some sort of breakthrough.

He kept his cards close to his chest following his meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, refusing to go into details of the talks.

But the foreign secretary made clear at his press conference in Islamabad that he pressed General Musharraf to take "clear action" over cross-border terrorism, stressing that he acknowledged that some action has already been taken.

Whether Mr Straw is keeping something up his sleeve from his meetings on Tuesday remains to be seen.

Strong line

One difficulty is that even if General Musharraf is giving away more in private than he does in public, it will take a lot to convince India of his sincerity.

Kashmiri militant
Pakistan denies backing Kashmiri militants
British officials stress that at present the impetus is not on finding a peace plan - the differences between the two sides are too entrenched for that at the moment - but simply to find a way to get them back around a negotiating table.

The trouble is, for all the best efforts of Mr Straw and others, Islamabad and Delhi - at the moment at least - are just too far apart.

Both, of course, need to hammer out a strong line at home - General Musharraf is hoping to avoid the backlash he suffered for backing the US war on terror, while Indian patience following recent terrorist attacks is wearing thin.

Their respective domestic audiences seem happy enough with what they are hearing from their leaders.

They worry about war, but also appear reluctant to risk being seen to be losing face.

Growing anxiety

On the outskirts of both Islamabad and Delhi on Tuesday, soldiers stared out sullenly from bunkers piled up high with sandbags.

That may be standard practice, but there is undoubtedly a growing sense of anxiety that a major conflict is around the corner in the region, particularly in the light of this week┐s defiant statements from both sides.

As for Mr Straw, he is managing to maintain an upbeat demeanour while downplaying any hopes of progress.

His schedule for Wednesday is packed with meetings with Indian ministers and opposition leaders.

Vain hope

Next week there will probably be another foreign minister making the short flight between Islamabad and Delhi and conducting a similar range of meetings.

Simply keeping up high-level contacts and highlighting the worldwide concern at the stand-off seems the best the international community can do for now.

To actually get India and Pakistan around a negotiating table requires each to have even a little confidence in the other.

And at the moment, that seems like a vain hope.

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