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India/Pakistan Conflict....

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Up to 17 million people would be killed or injured in the first weeks of an all-out nuclear war between India and Pakistan, according to the Pentagon.

The figure is from a recently updated Defense Intelligence Agency estimate based on a worst-case scenario in which both sides unleash all their nuclear weapons, and score direct hits.

The figures were released on Friday as India's defense minister shrugged off growing international concerns that the two South Asian foes were on the brink of a full-out conflict, even as both nations stepped up their war footing.

Amid a flurry of diplomatic efforts to curb rising tensions between India and Pakistan, India's defense minister George Fernandes said at the sidelines of a security conference in Singapore on Friday the situation was " stable."

U.S. officials have said that India is preparing to load conventional warheads on some of its medium-range missiles that can also carry nuclear warheads, following high-profile missile testing by Pakistan over the weekend and into this week.

In further developments, both America and Britain began advising their nationals to leave the area.

The U.S State Department authorized the voluntary departure of non-essential personnel and all dependents from the U.S. Embassy and consulates in India.

That means the U.S. government will pay for plane tickets for those people. In a travel warning posted on the State Department's Web site, the U.S. government warns American citizens to defer travel to India because of tensions with Pakistan.

"Tensions have risen to serious levels and the risk of intensified military hostilities between India and Pakistan cannot be ruled out," the warning reads.

Britons were also being advised to consider leaving India because of the threat of war. The families of UK Government staff and non-essential staff will be offered the chance to return home, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.

Meanwhile, Pakistan confirmed on Friday it was redeploying troops it has positioned close to Afghanistan, moving them eastwards to its frontier with nuclear rival India.

It was not known how many troops might be involved in such a move -- intended to beef up forces along the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-administered Kashmir, where hundreds of thousands of troops are already massed.

Amid concerns any redeployment could deal a serious blow to the U.S. war on terrorism, President George W. Bush announced that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would visit the volatile region.

"We are making it very clear that war will not serve their interests," Bush said at a Cabinet meeting.

Relations between India and Pakistan have come under pressure in recent weeks following a raid this month on an Indian camp in the disputed region of Kashmir, a flashpoint between the two rivals for more than half a century. (Tensions mount)

Each side blames the other for the rising tensions. New Delhi points the finger at Islamabad for an almost steady stream of attacks on Indian targets by Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatists.

Pakistan for its part, denies the accusation, saying it only offers political and diplomatic support to what it calls a legitimate struggle for self-determination by the mostly Muslim people of Kashmir.

The two countries have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947.

Foment conflict

While the conflict has a drawn-out history, the United States has recently relied on Pakistan to keep Taliban and al Qaeda fighters from entering or leaving Afghanistan as it seeks to eradicate terrorist cells from that country since the September 11 attacks on America.

U.S. officials believe al Qaeda members may be trying to foment conflict between India and Pakistan to distract the Pakistani government from pursuing the terrorist network.

While they say they have no evidence connecting al Qaeda to attacks on Indian targets, officials say evidence of ties to militants suspected of involvement is considerable. Pakistani officials say -- and U.S. officials confirm -- that some al Qaeda members have moved into major cities throughout Pakistan.

Musharraf, when asked what assurances he can give that the tensions wouldn't escalate into war -- conventional or nuclear -- said "all I can do is to give my own assurance that we will try to avoid conflict. It will be my utmost endeavor to avoid conflict."

Pakistan will not initiate a conflict, he said, but added "I think you need to get assurances from the Indian side."

Musharraf said Pakistan itself "is a victim of terrorism" and condemns terrorism.

Diplomatic flurry

International diplomats have been working hard to cool down the tensions between both countries. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited the region this week. Other nations have also expressed concern.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said "the main task for Russia and the whole international community is to prevent escalation of tension into military conflict and to bring about a solution of the difficult problem between these two countries through political means."

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and an informal adviser to the Indian government, said the "war clouds will begin to disperse" once Musharraf cracks down on suspected terrorists within Pakistan.

"If that does not happen, war is very likely," he said.

"Unless Pakistan cracks down on terror groups, there can be no progress in the war against terror.

"You can wipe out al Qaeda in Afghanistan and finish the Taliban, but as long as the terror infrastructure of Pakistan remains, you'll have jihadis -- Islamic holy warriors -- produced from the religious schools and terror training camps of the country," he said.

He added: "We have a paradox: Pakistan is the key ally to the United States in the U.S.-led war, but Pakistan is also the problem."

-- CNN correspondents Ash-Har Quraishi, Kasra Naji and David Ensor contributed to this report


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