NEW DELHI/ WASHINGTON: India’s foreign minister issued a strenuous denial to an infuriated opposition in parliament yesterday, after US President Donald Trump said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited him to mediate in the bloody conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. While Pakistan has often sought third-party mediation in the decades-old dispute which has cost tens of thousands of lives, the idea is anathema to India, which has always insisted the issue can only be resolved bilaterally.


Trump set off a political storm in India by claiming during a meeting in Washington on Monday with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that Modi had asked him two weeks ago to mediate in the Kashmir dispute. “I’d like to categorically assure the house that no such request was made by the prime minister to the US president,” Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told the Indian parliament, barely able to make his voice heard over the opposition tumult. Jaishankar insisted the conflict could only be settled bilaterally and that Pakistan had to end “cross-border terrorism” before any talks.


Trump’s comments touched on one of the most sensitive topics for New Delhi. India has disputed Kashmir with its neighbor since their independence in 1947. Both control parts of the former Himalayan kingdom, but claim it in its entirety. They have fought two wars over the region and tens of thousands, mainly civilians, have died since an insurgency erupted three decades ago in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Tensions rose yesterday across the line of control – the de facto border dividing Kashmir – as firing broke out, violating a ceasefire between the two sides. Raja Akmal, a senior police official in Pakistani Kashmir, told AFP a 70-year-old woman was killed after she was hit by a mortar shell. Another government official said two people were wounded in “heavy shelling” on the line of control, “which was targeting civilian population”. Earlier yesterday, Indian officials had blamed Pakistan for the resumption of border firing.


Indian opposition leaders demanded that Modi make a personal statement to parliament to confirm that there was no change in New Delhi’s longstanding policy of only direct talks with Islamabad. Khan – on an official visit to the United States – stirred the controversy further by saying Kashmir could only be resolved with outside help. “Bilaterally, there will never be (an end to the Kashmir conflict),” Khan told Fox News, adding that Pakistan and India were “poles apart”. “I really feel that India should come… (to) the table. The US could play a big part, President Trump certainly can play a big part.”


Khan said he was surprised by Delhi’s reaction. “Surprised by reaction of India to Pres Trump’s offer of mediation to bring Pak and India to dialogue table for resolving Kashmir conflict which has held subcontinent hostage for 70 yrs,” Khan said on Twitter. Some US politicians quickly distanced themselves from Trump’s comments. Brad Sherman, a Democratic Congressman and member of the House foreign affairs committee, said he apologised to the Indian ambassador in Washington for Trump’s statement. “Everyone knows PM Modi would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing,” he tweeted.


The State Department also sought to calm the storm. “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist,” tweeted Alice Wells, acting assistant secretary of the department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
Meanwhile, Khan also said Monday that Pakistan’s main spy agency provided the US with a lead that helped them find and kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Pakistan has until now officially denied having any knowledge of the terror chief until he was shot dead in a night time raid by US special forces on May 2, 2011, an incident that was a major national embarrassment and caused ties between the two countries to plummet.


Khan made his claim in the interview with Fox News when he was asked whether his country would release a jailed doctor whose fake immunization drive helped the US track and kill bin Laden in 2011. “This is a very emotive issue, because Shakeel Afridi in Pakistan is considered a spy,” he told host Bret Baier, referring to the doctor. “We in Pakistan always felt that we were an ally of the US and if we had been given the information about Osama bin Laden, we should have taken him out.”
Baier then asked if Khan understood the skepticism around the Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for leaking key information, to which Khan replied: “And yet it was ISI that gave the information which led to the location of Osama bin Laden. If you ask CIA it was ISI which gave the initial location through the phone connection.” It was not immediately clear what Khan was referring to and he did not provide more detail.
Though Pakistan officially denies knowing that bin Laden was living on its territory, Asad Durrani, a former spymaster, told Al Jazeera in 2015 that the ISI probably knew where he was hiding and hoped to use him as a bargaining chip before he was killed. The 9/11 mastermind was tracked down after a 10-year manhunt to Abbottabad, a garrison town north of Islamabad where Pakistan’s military academy is headquartered, sparking allegations authorities were colluding with the terror group.


A leaked Pakistani government report in 2013 said bin Laden arrived in Pakistan in the spring or summer of 2002 – after the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan – and settled in Abbottabad in August 2005. The report, which coined the term “governance implosion syndrome” to explain the extent of official failures to detect him, said he was once stopped for speeding and enjoyed wearing a cowboy hat. Two former senior Pakistani military officials told AFP in 2015 that a defector from Pakistani intelligence assisted the US in its hunt for bin Laden, but denied the two countries had officially worked together. – Agencies