Way out of war leads to safe passage
Pakistan frees Nachiketa
From the front
Top-slot dilemma with No. 1
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New Delhi, June 3 
Unmindful of the all-round criticism of defence minister George Fernandes for his statement about ?safe passage,? India and Pakistan are already discussing the eventuality of allowing the infiltrators to withdraw to the Pakistani side of the Line of Control.

A key official, who made a secret trip to Islamabad to prepare for Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz?s visit to New Delhi, has just returned with the impression that safe passage for the intruders is the only prudent way of defusing the Kargil crisis without huge casualties on the Indian side and rising tension in the sub-continent.

The official?s visit to Islamabad and his discussions there are being interpreted by authoritative sources as a positive development. The release of Flt Lt Nachiketa on Thursday evening is also linked to these talks in Islamabad.

The intensity of the armed action in Kargil on Thursday notwithstanding, these developments have raised hopes that the visit by Aziz may hold the key to a solution to the crisis along the LoC.

Aziz was to have arrived in Delhi early this week, but officials on both sides felt it was better to allow time to do some homework. Pakistan today proposed June 7 as the date for his visit.

Anticipating the possibility of safe passage, the external affairs ministry has already begun preparing public opinion on those lines. A ministry spokesman said today there was no question of allowing safe passage to those who have committed aggression. But this categorical assertion has been qualified by an explanation.

?Armed forces are engaged in encircling the intruders with a view to eliminating the intrusion. Should they (Pakistan) choose to withdraw them, that would be prudent,? the spokesman said. ?Safe passage,? he added, meant ?movement backwards?.

Semantics implicit in the spokesman?s statement underlines the difficulties facing the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers as they try to negotiate an end to the fighting in Kargil.

After the controversy created by Fernandes over his statement about safe passage, it would be difficult for India to announce a settlement on those lines.

The political leadership here is of the view that public opinion is in favour of punishing the intruders and safe passage would be interpreted as a sign of Indian weakness. Hence, the government?s decision to backtrack from the public positions taken by the Prime Minister and the defence minister on the issue.

Any public announcement about safe passage would be even more difficult for Islamabad to accept. Pakistan has maintained that there are no intruders from across the LoC and that the trouble in Kargil is the result of a domestic insurrection by Kashmiri freedom fighters.

The emphasis by army spin-doctors here in the last two days that the intruders are being pushed closer towards the LoC is also linked to an eventual solution built around the idea of safe passage.

As and when an agreement is reached between the two foreign ministers, it will be easier for the government?s publicity machine to claim that since the objectives of Operation Vijay have been achieved, it does not matter if some infiltrators have escaped across the LoC.

The US position on the current conflict has also made it imperative for both India and Pakistan to show results from the Aziz visit, for different reasons.

New Delhi is deeply satisfied with Washington?s unexpected pro-India tilt and wants to be seen as being reasonable in finding a solution.

New Delhi would also like to retain the goodwill of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, all of whom have been supportive of India.

Pakistan, on the other hand, cannot afford to annoy the US at a time when its economy is in deep crisis. The Clinton administration has told Islamabad in unambiguous terms that the infiltrators must pull back to the Pakistani side of the LoC.    

Islamabad, June 3 
Pakistan tonight released Indian pilot K. Nachiketa, who had been taken prisoner in the undeclared war eight days ago.

Nachiketa was handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross at the foreign office here, state-run Pakistan Television said. Indian high commissioner in Islamabad G. Parthasarathy had earlier refused to accept Nachiketa when Pakistan decided to hand him over in the presence of a crowd of journalists. He insisted that Nachiketa be handed over to the Indian high commission via the Red Cross.

The pilot, who turned 26 on Sunday, will spend the night at the high commission. The details of how he returns to India will be worked out tomorrow. But sources said Nachiketa might not be able to return immediately as several formalities, including getting an ?exit certificate?, have to be completed.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called Nachiketa?s release a ?goodwill gesture? and said it was an indication that he was willing ?to go that extra mile?. He said: ?Pakistan wants to defuse the situation which was initiated by India. We want to prevent any further escalation.?

Asked if there had been American pressure for Nachiketa?s release, Sharif said: ?You know I don?t take any pressure.?

Nachiketa was captured last week after he bailed out when the MiG-27 he was flying developed a technical snag. Since then, he had been held in a military base in Pakistan.

Asked if Nachiketa?s release was part of a bargain he had struck with Delhi before Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz departs for talks in India, Sharif said: ?We are not expecting any concessions from anywhere. All that we are interested in are talks between the two countries, which should lead to a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir problem.?

Sharif described as ?unfortunate? the continued Indian shelling and military action along the Line of Control. ?They should not do that, it is unfortunate,? he said.    


Shellgil is as blind as it gets

The rain turned to sleet and the sleet to light flurries of snow. The young Major brushes the white specks off his leather jacket, ducks into his bunker and asks his gunner to try the scrambler again.

?I get uneasy being on standby for such long periods. No orders for an hour. I want to hit them before they come at me,? he says and turns to his gunner again. ?Ask them to give us the new trajectories and the go-ahead to fire.?

We are on a grassy promontory near Drass overlooking the high road to Kargil and the deep gorge cut by the river Sind. The major?s battery ? five 130 mm medium-range guns and two Bofors howitzers ? stands arrayed on the green, their cold snouts cocked at the craggy, snow-capped peaks to the north.

?That is what makes me uneasy,? the major says, screwing his eyes at the peaks. ?They have the height and a better idea of our positions. And a lot of our guns, like here, are exposed.?

But he affords himself a laugh when asked if he was giving as good as he was getting. ?Want to watch? Just wait awhile.?

The drill of passing choppers is constantly in the air; mostly little Cheetahs weaving their way through peaks to forward posts, but also the odd MI-8 carrying heavier supplies. The road up from Sonemarg is one long and winding antcrawl of troops. Troops in droning army trucks, troops in Shanghaied private carriers, troops marching on foot. Every mountain lee, every little clearing, every rock-curtained twist in the Sind gorge has become a buzzing troop bivouac. Camouflage netting stretched across tents and ammunition dumps, artillery guns sunk in freshly-dug pits, soldiers busy bunkering. ?We are just busy beginning to dig in,? the major says. ?This is going to be a long haul.?

He has finally snatched his orders over the scrambler and his jawans get busy loading their guns and repositioning their turrets. ?Jaldi, jaldi,? he cries, and then, one after the other, the artillery begins to boom and recoil. Dhammm, dhammm, dhammm. The shells vanish into the gathering cloud-gloom.

The major confesses he has little idea of how accurately his guns are firing but is happy to just fling the ballast across. ?They have been whistling over our heads all of last night,? he says. ?No damage luckily, but they gave us a harrowing time. We have been returning fire since this morning. This is our fourth round.?

There is an air and ground conflict raging in the higher reaches but this one is a battle as blind as it can get. Both sides are pounding positions across high mountain faces. Adversary cannot see adversary. He can only fire and hope to hit.

The boom and thud of shells is about as insistent on the narrow road from Drass to Kargil as the sweet warble of the Sind, a jade torrent now with waters of freshly-melting snow. As we push on towards Kargil on the narrow rubble strip that the vaunted National Highway 1 is, the shelling gets harder and gains frequency.

Wham, wham, thatch into the mountainsides, wham and thatch again, splintering stone and sparking little landslides.

The howitzers ferried all along the road boom back. You stop and you become a sitting duck. So the only thing to do is to move on and hope it is always one of two possibilities: the shell missing you or you missing the shell.

Kargil is a clich? for a ghosttown. But they do actually have a more engaging name for it: Shellgil. On Wednesday, the fire from across the mountain all but blew up the TV transmitter. On Thursday, as we trundled in, mortar flew into the army transport convoy headquarters and a cluster of empty dwellings close by. There was more shelling in the afternoon and evening, but the fire was consumed by bare mountains.

Pulverised for close to a year, Kargil?s inhabitants have all left, save for the dogs and a few taxi-drivers and hoteliers, because it is fetching them a high price. The main street is a row of depeopled dwellings. But for the main street, there is little else.

There is a war on, of course, but even from Kargil, even from this shuddering frontier town, war, as most of us have come to imagine it, is a long, long, way away.    

London, June 3 
Usually, the Sachin Tendulkar factor weighs down the opposition. Today, the Indians have themselves been caught in a bind. That, too, on the eve of a match where there?s everything to lose and gain.

Logically, Sachin should open with Sourav Ganguly. After all, the world?s numero uno batsman needs no protection. He is himself keen to revert to the top.

There?s the psychological element as well. With a minimum score of 80 in three of his last four innings against Australia ? the other three, by the way, all produced brilliant hundreds in succession ? it would be foolish to keep Sachin at No.4. Yet, the thinktank was undecided till late tonight. It?s only then that The Telegraph learnt ? unofficially ? that Sachin would actually open. However, there?s nothing official about it.

The uncertainty has been ill-timed as all the right moves must be made tomorrow, at The Oval. The first, of course, centres around Sachin. Getting him to open is akin to making a statement. And it has to be made.

With both India and Australia taking to the Super Six with zero points, the morrow?s game is much more than just the one to launch stage-II of the World Cup.

Defeat will more or less snuff out semi-final hopes.

Therefore, it?s another of the ?big? matches. One more game where heroism will guarantee icon status for life. Head-to-head Australia have the advantage but, in this tournament, India have definitely played better.

Perhaps, it?s significant not one Australian features among the top-ten rungetters ? Ricky Ponting is at No.11, with a tally of just 165. The Indians have three in the list: Rahul Dravid (369), Sourav Ganguly (342) and Sachin (192).

There are times when statistics do reveal everything.

Australia aren?t at the top in bowling either: spearhead Glenn McGrath is joint seventh with 10 victims. India?s best is Jawagal Srinath, with eight wickets.

The different set of statistics, perhaps, mirror what tomorrow?s match could be all about: the fired-up Indian batting against McGrath?s 10 overs.

Significant, too, is that India forced handsome wins the last two occasions they faced Australia: In the mini-World Cup quarter finals, at Dhaka, and the April 1998 Sharjah final. Yes, the one where Sachin became a ?nightmare? for Shane Warne.

?We played well to win all three of the last league games and, really, we?ve just got to keep up the good work. It?s going to be tough, but we know what?s expected of us. In any case, we?ve certainly played better (than Australia) in the World Cup,? remarked Mohammed Azharuddin.

Steve Waugh felt Australia are ?gaining momentum? and could be ?unstoppable? should they beat India. He added: ?I?ll be telling the boys to not just focus on Sachin. He?s capable of great innings. Equally, like the other batsmen, he can get a nick as well.? The Sachin factor is omnipresent.

There?ll be much attention on Bobby Simpson, too. The Indian team?s consultant was coach when Australia won the 1987 edition and made the 1996 final. Simpson, though, is playing it cool.

?Mixed feelings? Never have them. I?m an Australian first, but a professional as well...? was Simpson?s candid answer.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky with possibility of one or two showers or thundershowers.
Temperature: Maximum 35?C (Normal)
Minimum 27.2?C (Normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 98% Minimum 63%
Rainfall: 41.7 mm
Sunset: 6.14 pm Sunrise: 4.55 am    

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