NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi never asked U.S. President Donald Trump to help mediate with Pakistan in their dispute over the Kashmir region, the government said on Tuesday, after Trump’s comments set off a storm of criticism.
Trump told reporters on Monday that Modi had asked him during a meeting in Japan last month if he would like to be a mediator on Kashmir. The territory is at the heart of decades of hostility between India and Pakistan.
Trump was speaking at the White House just before holding talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan welcomed the U.S. effort to intercede, saying he would carry the hopes of more than a billion people in the region.
But the comments triggered a political storm in India, which has long bristled at any suggestion of third-party involvement in tackling Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region that it considers an integral part of the country.
Foreign Minister Subrahmanyan Jaishankar, who was part of the Indian delegation at the G20 meeting where Trump and Modi met, told agitated lawmakers that Modi did not seek any help from Trump over Kashmir.
“The U.S. president made certain remarks to the effect he was ready to mediate if requested by India and Pakistan. I categorically assure the house that no such request has been made by the prime minister, I repeat, no such request was made,” he told parliament.
The divided Himalayan region is claimed by both Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan and the nuclear-armed neighbors have gone to war twice over the territory since independence in 1947.
Pakistan has long pressed for the implementation of decades-old U.N. resolutions calling for a ballot for the region to decide its future. India says the United Nations has no role in Kashmir, where separatist militants have been battling Indian forces for years.
Trump’s comments risked further straining political ties with India, which are already under pressure over trade.
Jaishankar said there could be no third-party involvement in India’s problems with Pakistan.
“I also reiterate that it has been India’s position that all outstanding issues are discussed only bilaterally. I further underline any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism.”
Tension between India and Pakistan has been high since an attack on an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in February claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group prompted India to send warplanes into Pakistan.
Pakistan retaliated by ordering its jets into India’s side of Kashmir the following day, raising the prospect of a wider conflict.
Khan said on Tuesday he was surprised by India’s reaction to the Trump offer of mediation. “Generations of Kashmiris have suffered & are suffering daily and need conflict resolution,” he said.
Pakistan denies Indian accusations that it gives material help to the militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir for nearly three decades, but says it gives moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri people in their struggle for self-determination.
In Washington, officials played down the prospect of an active U.S. role in mediating on Kashmir.
Soon after Trump’s remarks, the U.S. State Department said in a post on Twitter that it supported any dialogue between India and Pakistan but that Kashmir was a matter for the two countries.
“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,” it said.
The Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, spoke to the Indian ambassador to say there was no change in the U.S. position on Kashmir, the committee said on Twitter.
“Engel reiterated his support for the longstanding U.S. position on the Kashmir dispute, saying he supported dialogue between India & Pakistan, but the dialogue’s pace & scope can only be determined by India & Pakistan.”
He also said that Pakistan must “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” for any meaningful dialogue with India.
Trump and Khan also discussed ways to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan. The United States sees Pakistan’s cooperation as crucial to any deal to ensure the country does not become a base for militant groups like Islamic State.
Additional reporting by James MacKenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry