After a hastily arranged Fourth of July meeting here between President Clinton and the leader of Pakistan, U.S. officials said yesterday they had received assurances that Pakistan would withdraw forces that had crossed into the Indian portion of Kashmir six weeks ago and triggered an escalation of fighting between the world's two newest nuclear powers.
A joint statement issued by Clinton and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said only that the two men had agreed that "concrete steps will be taken" to restore the 1972 cease-fire line separating the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir.
But elaborating on the statement, administration officials indicated Sharif had pledged to abandon the strategic peaks seized in the Kargil sector of Kashmir--and to do so very soon.
"Our understanding is that there will be a withdrawal of the forces now," one U.S. official told reporters. "We want to see steps taken very quickly."
The confrontation over the Himalayan territory has risen quickly in the past month to one of the most serious in the half-century dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, igniting fresh international concerns about a regional war erupting.
India remained skeptical yesterday about the results of the U.S.-Pakistani meeting, warning that its military forces, which launched an air and ground offensive in late May to dislodge the insurgents, would continue efforts to regain the embattled territory until there is evidence of a pullout. Earlier yesterday, India declared a major military victory, saying it had reclaimed a key 16,500-foot peak known as Tiger Hill that would allow Indian troops to retake other ridges still occupied by Islamic militants and Pakistani army troops.
The prospect of further military setbacks may have been a factor behind Sharif's decision. But the move is sure to draw criticism in Pakistan, particularly among Islamic fundamentalist and military groups, which have warned that they would attempt to bring down Sharif down if he withdrew from Kargil.
The meeting with Clinton was arranged at Sharif's request, U.S. officials said, in what some here saw as an attempt by the Pakistani leader to gain political cover for the decision to pull out. The seizure of the Kargil territory had been interpreted by many as an attempt to force the Kashmir issue into an international forum such as the United Nations.
While Clinton gave no sign yesterday that he would favor U.N. consideration of the matter, he did pledge to become more involved in fostering direct talks between Pakistan and India. The joint statement included a sentence saying that once the "sanctity" of the cease-fire line has been restored, Clinton "would take a personal interest in encouraging an expeditious resumption and intensification of" the high-level talks begun between Pakistan and India four months ago in Lahore, Pakistan.
It also said that Clinton, who canceled plans to visit India and Pakistan last year after they conducted their nuclear tests, intended to "pay an early visit to South Asia."
Meeting at Blair House, the official guest residence across the street from the White House, Clinton and Sharif talked for about three hours. They spent some of the time in one-on-one conversation, officials said.
Midway through the meeting, Clinton broke away to phone Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had turned down an invitation the day before for his own talks in Washington, according to Indian officials. Vajpayee, whose government has been criticized for India's failure to foresee the enemy's strategy, faces a national election in September. He has rejected any dialogue with Pakistan over the fighting or the wider issue of Kashmir's status until Pakistani forces leave the Indian-controlled zone.
Just who has occupied the Kargil territory has been a subject of dispute. India has said the 700 Pakistanis who moved into the region included regular army soldiers as well as mercenaries. Pakistan has insisted the group consisted only of Muslim militants over whom it has no control and who are fighting for freedom in the two-thirds of Kashmir ruled by India.
U.S. officials have accepted India's description, saying they believe Pakistani soldiers are directly involved in the conflict. But the joint statement yesterday avoided the issue, making no reference to whether or not Pakistan exerted any control over the forces that crossed the cease-fire line.
Kashmir is the main issue that has disrupted relations between largely Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947. In the past half-century, the two countries have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.
The conflict became potentially more dangerous last year, when both countries tested nuclear weapons for the first time in back-to-back events.
Hopes that the two arch-rivals would reach a detente rose in February, when Sharif launched the "Lahore process" and entered into a direct dialogue with India. But the opening of the new military front in Kashmir appeared to dash that initiative.
With Pakistan depending heavily on international loans, some in Congress, angered by the Pakistani assault into Kashmir, threatened to withdraw U.S. support for additional funds from the International Monetary Fund and other multinational financial institutions.
CAPTION: Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif met with the president at Blair House.