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Back From the Brink in Kashmir

PAKISTAN and India are moving dangerously close to open conflict in Kashmir, a region they've already fought over three times. The assassination this week of an Islamic leader of the secessionist movement within Indian Kashmir, followed by the killing of at least 47 mourners by security forces, greatly heightens tensions. The situation demands quick defusing, and the means of doing so are available through the 1972 Simla Agreement between Pakistan and India. Both parties agreed, at that time, to respect the 1971 cease-fire borders and to refrain from actions ``detrimental to the maintenance of peaceful relations.'' A dialogue following these guidelines is needed now.

But current tendencies are in the opposite direction. Prime Minister V.P. Singh of India, hemmed in by militant Hindu coalition partners, has stuck with a policy of military repression in Kashmir - which is only likely to fan the insurgency there. India should recognize, instead, the need to grant Kashmir's Muslims a degree of autonomy.

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Pakistan is widely believed to be actively backing Kashmirian separatists within India, and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also under pressure from religious radicals, has of late been indicating her country's readiness to fight again over the disputed region.

Uncomfortably linked to this resurging conflict are the superpowers that supply weapons to the two sides. The United States has given billions of dollars in arms to Pakistan in recent years in an effort to counter the Soviet threat in Afghanistan. It now finds those guns are more likely to be trained on neighboring India. The Soviet Union is India's longtime arms supplier.

President Bush's deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates, has visited Islamabad and New Delhi to urge negotiations. His efforts are supported by the Soviets. Leaders in both capitals, it is hoped, will heed the voices of reason and step back from what could be a catastrophic brink.

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