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India/Pakistan: Tensions Grow As Kashmir Conflict Heats Up

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Tensions between Pakistan and India have increased in recent weeks over the disputed Kashmir territory. Each country has accused the other of sponsoring state terrorism in Kashmir. Two days ago, the two countries traded shells in a fierce artillery exchange. Today a senior Pakistani army officer announced that India had moved troops up to the line of control.

Islamabad, 17 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A senior Pakistani army officer, Major General Rashid Qureshi, interrupted a Pakistani Foreign Office press conference this afternoon to say that India was carrying out troop movements in Kashmir. Pakistan and India have fought two wars to date over the volatile region.

The announcement came two days after India initiated heavy shelling along the line of control that separates their portions of Kashmir.

"We have information wherein India has moved some troops and relocated some air force assets which may prove to be a threat. This action -- when seen in the context of the irresponsible remarks of the newly appointed [Indian] Defense Minister [Jaswant Singh] and the unprovoked firing of two days earlier against civilians in Azar Kashmir as well as the working boundary -- has become a cause of concern. The Pakistan armed forces are fully alive to the situation and are on a high state of alert, ready to thwart any attempt at mischief or misadventure."

On 1 October, Kashmiri militants drove a car packed with explosives into the parliament building in the capital Srinigar and then embarked on a shooting spree in the burning building. Thirty-eight people died. India blamed Pakistan for the attack, saying the guerrillas were trained in Pakistan or in Pakistani-financed camps in Afghanistan.

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived Monday (15 October) evening in Pakistan for talks with Pakistan's president, India launched a fierce artillery barrage at the town of Sialkot in Pakistani Kashmir. India called the shelling a "punitive" response to the terrorist attack in Srinigar. Pakistan said one civilian was killed and others were injured. The exchanges, the first outbreak of violence in 10 months, continued yesterday as another Pakistani was killed.

Qureshi would not say whether he felt an Indian attack was imminent but said Pakistan was ready for any possible action: "It has amply been made clear by the government of Pakistan on more than one occasion that while world attention remains focused on events in Afghanistan, no one would be allowed to exploit the situation to undertake any hostile or belligerent action against Pakistan."

He said that Pakistan would retaliate against any act of aggression by India. He also referred to recent widespread demonstrations against the Pakistani government by Islamic fundamentalist groups opposed to Pakistan's cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition against terror: "The demonstrations organized by some extremist elements in the recent past may have conveyed an impression of weakness in Pakistan. Let me assure the Indians that Pakistanis come together whenever a threat emanates against the country."

The U.S. must tread a fine line in its efforts to retain the support of both countries in its campaign against terrorism. Pakistan was pleased that Powell had said during his stay that the Kashmir issue was "central to the relationship" between India and Pakistan, and that the U.S. would try to help broker a settlement. In turn, India has been dismayed by America's announcement that it will lift military sanctions against Pakistan in return for its cooperation with the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. American ally Britain has also said it will restore military aid.

Powell received a chilly reception when he arrived for talks in India yesterday (16 October). The Indian Foreign Ministry said that "terrorism" -- sponsored by Pakistan rather than by indigenous Kashmiris -- was at the heart of the problems between the two South Asian rivals.

The rivalry dates to the partition of the old British Indian empire into mainly Hindu India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947. Although most of the inhabitants of Kashmir are Muslims, the bulk of the state's territory was taken over by India, following the request of its ruling prince.

Pakistan has not accepted the partition, and many Kashmiris want their area to become either part of Pakistan or an independent Muslim state. Two conventional wars have been fought over the region, both lost by Pakistan. But Muslim separatist groups have continued to challenge Indian rule.

A vicious guerrilla war has raged for more than a decade in Kashmir, with Muslim fighters carrying out attacks against the Indian army and killing non-Muslim civilians. India accuses Pakistan of financing the guerrillas and what it calls their terrorist activities.

In turn, Pakistan says the Indian army has formed death squads to assassinate Kashmiri militants and their supporters. Pakistan and India maintain huge military formations along their border. Both have produced nuclear weapons in recent years -- a fact that only increases the fear of a conflagration.