Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ruled out a meeting with the leader of Pakistan on the sidelines of a conference in Kazakhstan, dealing a blow to efforts by world leaders to try to defuse tension between the two nuclear-ready rivals.
"There is no proposal for talks with Musharraf," Vajpayee said shortly before flying off to Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan, where the 16-nation conference is due to be held Monday and Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had been hoping to rope Vajpayee and Musharraf together for face-to-face talks on the fringes of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia.
Vajpayee, who has extended his stay in Kazakhstan by a day to engage in bilaterals with Putin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, offered a glimmer of hope, however.
India, he told reporters in New Delhi, would give "serious consideration" to talks with Pakistan in the future if there is any evidence backing up Musharraf's claims to have clamped down on cross-border militancy in Kashmir.
Putin still intends to speak to the two men individually during the conference in the hope of finding common ground.
Musharraf, who departed Islamabad Sunday for Dushanbe, where he was to hold talks with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov ahead of Monday's Almaty conference, left on a more conciliatory note, saying he was ready to meet the Indian prime minister and dismissing fears of a nuclear conflict in South Asia.
In an interview Saturday with CNN, Musharraf said he did not believe either Pakistan or India was "irresponsible" enough to push the button.
Whether the rival leaders hold face-to-face talks or not, the Almaty conference is in any case expected to be dominated by the simmering tensions over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, who between them have placed a million soldiers on a war footing on their common frontiers.
In Singapore, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes warned Sunday that New Delhi faced "intense" pressure to launch an attack on "terrorists" in the disputed Kashmir region.
But Fernandes said that while India will continue its struggle against terrorism, it "will not be impulsive" in its dealings with Pakistan.
Escalating war talk between the hostile neighbors, and the continuous reverberation of artillery duels between their two armies in Kashmir, prompted western governments and the United Nations at the weekend to send families of diplomats home.
Families have already begun leaving, although many had planned to head off in any case as international schools closed on Friday for the summer vacations.
The intense stand-off follows an attack on India's parliament in December by Islamic rebels New Delhi claims are sponsored by Islamabad, followed by a massacre, again by militants, at an army camp in India-Kashmir on May 14.
Vajpayee and Musharraf last met at a South Asian summit in Kathmandu in January when, despite expectations they would hold face-to-face talks, all they did was engage in a handshake theatrically engineered by Musharraf.
Indian officials have made it clear they are anxious to avoid a repeat at Almaty of another stage-managed greeting, and that instead Vajpayee will use the forum to denounce his rival's support of "cross-border terrorism" -- the main source of the current plunge in their relations.
Waiting in the wings should Putin's efforts bear little fruit, or to take advantage of any space created at Almaty, are two heavyweight envoys from the United States.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will leave on Tuesday for meetings in Pakistan and India on June 6 and 7, while veteran Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will arrive in the region after a visit to Europe at the end of the week.
© AFP 2002