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India/Pakistan: Kashmir Battle Likely To Continue For Months

Indian troops are gradually pushing Pakistani-supported insurgents back from the Indian side of the line of control dividing Kashmir. But RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel talks with an analyst who says the fighting is likely to continue for months.

Prague, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Indian army, supported by fighter bombers, is steadily forcing insurgents back from its side of the line of control in Kashmir. Some 600 guerrillas slipped as deep as six kilometers into the mountainous eastern sector of the province more than two months ago.

The insurgents surprised New Delhi at the onset of Spring by occupying the Indian Army's own border fortifications which it regularly leaves vacant during the bitter Himalayan Winter. That surprise strategy threatened to give the guerrillas -- who seek to wrest Kashmir from India and join it to Pakistan -- a strategic foothold for launching attacks deeper into the province.

Damon Bristow, a military expert specializing in Indian and Pakistani affairs at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says that Indian soldiers have now pushed the insurgents back across the mountains to an average of about 3 kilometers from the disputed Pakistani-Indian border, known as the line of control.

Those Indian gains have reduced any immediate danger the insurgents pose to India's main militarily important target in the area: the highway connecting eastern Kashmir's principal city of Leh with the province's northern, or Summer, capital of Srinagar.

Over the past weeks, the insurgents, backed by Pakistani artillery on the Pakistan-side of the line of control, shelled the road near the towns of Dras and Kargil in an effort to cut off the Indian army's supply line to eastern Kashmir. The shelling forced most of the 12,000 residents of Kargil to flee to refugee camps.

But Bristow says that as the insurgents are being forced back out of Kashmir, the fighting is only likely to become more difficult for the Indian troops. Bristow spoke with RFE/RL by telephone from London:

"They have pushed them back about 50 percent in the areas of the biggest incursions. In the Dras sector, they were about six kilometers in and they are now about 2.5 or three kilometers. But in saying that, it gets harder the closer you get to line of control, the terrain is tougher."

The fighting, which is taking place at mountain altitudes of 4,000 to 5,000 meters, is intense and often hand-to-hand, with casualty reports on both sides difficult to verify. The Indian army has said it has killed scores of insurgents while correspondents say it has lost some 200 of its own soldiers to date. Much of the fighting has been from ridge top to ridge top as the Indian troops try to scale their way up steep slopes to reach the insurgents who are in well-fortified positions and re-supplied from the Pakistani side of the line of control.

Bristow says that despite the Indian army's overwhelming superiority of numbers and firepower, it is severely constrained by the fact that the insurgents are so high up and so well dug-in.

"The guerrillas are high up and the Indians are low down. You are trying to take strategic heights and ridges from people who are also dug in, not in things they have dug themselves but often in positions that have been built by the Indian military. The Indians are further hamstrung by the fact that they, because they have chosen not to cross the line of control, they are finding it very difficult to get in the way of supply routes and supply chains to the militants. So, while the militants are under attack they still remain very well supplied which is making them even harder to dislodge."

Analysts now predict that the fighting could well continue until the onset of Winter, which comes to the Himalayan mountain tops in September. The extreme Winter will make any large-scale troop movements almost impossible.

Bristow says that both sides are now eyeing September as their deadline for reaching their goals. The Pakistani-supported insurgents likely hope to hold onto as much territory as they can and keep it through the Winter as a base for re-launching a new offensive next Spring. The Indian government, facing general elections in September, is under mounting political pressure to drive the insurgents out of Kashmir well before Winter freezes the fighting.

As the fighting is now well into its third month with no end in sight, the biggest question surrounding the conflict remains to what extent Pakistani forces are directly involved. New Delhi has repeatedly said the insurgents include regular Pakistani army soldiers as well as Islamic militants. Islamabad has said that the fighters are Kashmiri Muslim rebels native to the Indian-controlled province and that it is providing them only moral support.

Bristow says that there is increasing evidence that the insurgents include heavily armed and professional Pakistani soldiers. But it is unclear whether they are fighting under the command of militant groups based in Pakistan or under direct orders from Islamabad.

"The question is whether or not they are there under the central command of the army or whether or not they are there on their off time. What we can see at the moment is that probably it is more likely the latter. Many of these people are serving in the army but at the same time they have for whatever reason chosen to be involved in this. They may be under the control of militant groups [but] who has provided any impetus or direct control to those militant groups is another story altogether."

New Delhi has long accused Pakistani security services of encouraging and aiding Islamic militant groups to regularly send militants into Kashmir each Spring. Correspondents say that the Pakistani army clears the way for the militants to cross the line of control by shelling Indian border positions. The Indian army responds by shelling the Pakistani artillery positions.

Kashmir has been wracked by almost a decade of unrest as the majority Sunni Muslim population of the Valley of Kashmir has sought independence from India. India gained the territory of Jammu and Kashmir during the partition of Britain's Indian empire in 1947.

The Kashmir Valley Muslims maintain they want independence or greater autonomy from New Delhi and do not want to join the Islamic state of Pakistan. But their independence struggle, which began in 1989, has increasingly turned into a battle between non-native Pakistan-based Islamic groups, which seek to annex Kashmir to Pakistan, and Indian security forces. The ten years of terrorist and counter-terrorist fighting has claimed some 25,000 lives. India and Pakistan already have fought two wars over Jammu and Kashmir. The northern third of the territory is now held by Pakistan and the southern two-thirds by India. China occupied part of eastern Kashmir bordering Tibet in 1959.