Pakistani PM willing to talk but warns India not to attack

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s prime minister offered to hold talks with India, even as he warned New Delhi to refrain from launching any attacks on his country following last week’s suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Imran Khan said he hoped “better sense” would prevail after the attack on a paramilitary convoy that killed at least 40 Indian troops. But he warned in a televised speech Tuesday that if India attacks, “Pakistan will not merely think of retaliation, but rather, we will retaliate.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both sides “to exercise maximum restraint and take immediate steps to de-escalate tensions,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

He said the U.N. chief’s “good offices are available if accepted by both sides.”

Since independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries but claimed by each in its entirety.

The U.N. Security Council in 1948 called for a plebiscite “as soon as possible” on the future of the Himalayan territory but it has never been held. A U.N. peacekeeping mission has been in the region since 1949.

The bombing last Thursday in which a militant rammed an explosive-laden van into a paramilitary bus was the worst attack against Indian government forces in the history of Kashmir, where rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989.

India has blamed Pakistan and threatened a “jaw-breaking response.” Islamabad condemned the attack and cautioned India against linking Pakistan to the bombing without an investigation.

“If you have any actionable evidence, share it with us and we will take action,” Khan said. “We are ready to cooperate with India in the investigations.”

“I hope better sense will prevail,” he added.

His remarks were in response to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that his security forces have been given “total freedom” to deal with the militants in Kashmir.

Hours later, India’s External Affairs Ministry said in a statement it was surprised that Khan “refuses to acknowledge the attack on our security forces in Pulwama as an act of terrorism” and that the Pakistani premier “has neither chosen to condemn this heinous act, nor condoled with the bereaved families.”

It said Khan ignored claims of responsibility made by Jaish-e-Mohammad, as well as by the assailant who perpetrated the crime.

“It is a well-known fact that Jaish-e-Mohammad and its leader Masood Azhar are based in Pakistan. These should be sufficient proof for Pakistan to take action,” it said.

It said Khan sought evidence from New Delhi, which was “a lame excuse” as India had given evidence to Islamabad following the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and “despite this, the case has not progressed for the last more than 10 years.”

“Pakistan claims to be the greatest victim of terrorism. This is far from the truth. The international community is well acquainted with the reality that Pakistan is the nerve center of terrorism,” it said.

Azhar was released from custody in India in 1999, in exchange for more than 150 hostages from a hijacked Indian Airlines flight.

India and Pakistan have both recalled their ambassadors since the attack, and Pakistan called on the U.N. to help defuse tensions.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi sent a letter to Secretary-General Guterres saying that “for domestic political reasons, India has deliberately ratcheted up its hostile rhetoric against Pakistan and created a tense environment.”

Pakistan’s U.N. Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi met later with Guterres at U.N. headquarters in New York and said she told him “we are on the cusp of a very dangerous situation in South Asia.”

Noting India’s threats “to teach Pakistan a lesson,” she said she stressed to Guterres that “we don’t want to go down this path.”

“We would like to see a dialogue resume between Pakistan and India,” Lodhi told AP. “We are ready to talk on terrorism, on Kashmir — all the issues which are outstanding between the two countries.”

She said Guterres reminded her that he previously offered “his good offices,” but India didn’t accept.

Lodhi said she also met with the Security Council president and asked him to informally brief members about the emerging situation.

“We’re here to warn the international community that something much more dangerous can happen, and it’s important for at least the U.N. and the rest of the international community to step in and prevent further escalation,” she said.

The Ministry of External Affairs said it had no comment on Pakistan’s letter to the U.N.

A senior Indian military official in Kashmir, Lt. Gen. K.J.S. Dhillon, on Tuesday told reporters that Indian forces killed the chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed militant group behind the suicide bombing and a gunbattle Monday in Kashmir. Four Indian soldiers, three suspected militants, a police official and a civilian were killed in the clash.

The leader was a Pakistani national by the name of Kamran, Dhillon said.

Jaish-e-Mohammed is outlawed in Pakistan but thought to operate from safe havens there.

Pakistan did not immediately comment on Dhillon’s remarks.

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Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma in New Delhi, Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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