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South Asia: Violence Rises In Pakistan, India, And Disputed Kashmir

Tensions are on the rise once again in Pakistan, India, and the disputed territory of Kashmir, after a weekend of violence across the region. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the latest developments.

Prague, 18 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Rising religious and political tensions on the Asian subcontinent have been highlighted by a weekend of violence in Pakistan, India, and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

The latest violence includes a terrorist attack on a Christian church in Islamabad's diplomatic quarter yesterday that killed five people and injured 40 others.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the apparent suicide attack, but investigators say they suspect the involvement of at least one militant Islamic group that opposes Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Among those killed in the attack were the wife and daughter of an American diplomat, as well as a Pakistani woman, an Afghan man and an unidentified man who investigators say was probably the attacker.

Most of the injured were foreigners living in Islamabad's diplomatic community. They include 10 Americans, five Iranians, two Sri Lankans, one Iraqi, an Ethiopian, and a German. Also hurt were citizens of Pakistan, Britain, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Afghanistan.

Witnesses say they were listening to a preacher's sermon during a Sunday morning prayer service at the Protestant International Church in Islamabad when they heard an explosion. They say an unidentified man then ran down the aisle of the church shouting and throwing as many as eight hand grenades.

Upon hearing news of the attack, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Christina Rocca canceled talks she had been scheduled to attend in New Delhi today with Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra. Instead, Rocca traveled to Islamabad to meet with Pakistani authorities.

Musharraf, for his part, has announced a high-level investigation into the attack and has received promises of support from U.S. President George W. Bush.

Analysts say the incident raises questions about how Pakistan's security and intelligence community failed to prevent such an attack in an area that should be the most secure part of Islamabad.

Samina Ahmed, the Pakistan director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy group focusing on crisis-management issues in many parts of the world, says the incident suggests Musharraf's government is more focused on winning elections in October than cracking down on Islamic extremists.

Others suggest that the attack could bring Musharraf even closer to the United States by showing that he needs more Western support to fight fringe groups in his country.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, says the attack on innocent churchgoers shows that the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism holds the moral high ground in its campaign to eradicate terrorism.

"We will not give in to those driven by hate, to those so cowardly that they throw explosives at innocent people in a house of worship. These terrorists will not win in the United States, and they will not win in Pakistan, and we will not let them win anywhere."

Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider suggested that the attack may be linked to Lashkar-e-Jhangyi -- one of five Pakistan-based groups that have been banned by Islamabad in an attempt to crack down on terrorism. Haider noted that Lashkar-e-Jhangyi has been implicated in an attack on a Christian church last October that killed 16 Pakistanis in the country's eastern province of Punjab.

"This action (of yesterday) will certainly not bring a good name to Pakistan. You can deduce from this who the people responsible for this action can be. You know that before this, a [Christian] church [in Punjab province] was attacked and one of the attackers had been killed [in a clash with police]. People from that church have identified him. And he belonged to Lashkar-e-Jhangyi. Those parties have been banned but they are still [active]. As you know, doctors are being killed in Karachi. From this you can draw your own conclusions. President Pervez Musharraf is taking very strong steps for the welfare of Pakistan and wants to take action against terrorism so that Pakistan can become a peaceful country."

But Pakistani Law Minister Khalid Ranjha is downplaying suggestions that there are increasing tensions between Christians and Pakistan's Muslim majority. Ranjha described yesterday's attack as "a message" intended to spoil relations between Washington and Musharraf's regime.

"There is no friction between Muslims and Christians. In the past 50 years there has been none. We do not have any differences between us. It is not a Christian-Muslim divide as such. This is an incident which has occurred next to the American embassy, almost inside the American embassy."

Western correspondents confirm that with the exception of last October's massacre in Punjab province, attacks on Christians in Pakistan have been rare. But there has been a significant increase in religious violence in Pakistan since Musharraf announced a crackdown on Islamic militants in mid-January.

Much of that violence has been between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. For example, 13 doctors -- most of them Shiite Muslims -- have been slain so far this year in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi.

Fresh violence over the weekend in regions near the India-Pakistan border also demonstrates that religious tension continues to rise between Hindus and Muslims on the Asian subcontinent.

In the northern Indian state of Haryana yesterday, a mob of angry Hindus torched two mosques and killed two Muslims after hearing rumors that a Muslim family had slaughtered a cow. Police say the rumors were false and appear to have been spread by Hindu nationalist provocateurs.

Sectarian violence also is continuing in the riot-torn western Indian state of Gujarat. Two people were killed yesterday by Indian police trying to control rioters in Ahmadabad.

Some 700 people, mostly Muslims, have died as a result of mob violence in Gujarat since the end of February. That violence was triggered when suspected Muslim militants firebombed a train last month, killing as many as 60 Hindu activists. The activists were lobbying for a Hindu shrine to be built on a disputed holy site in the city of Ayodhya -- the same site where a Muslim mosque had been torn down a decade ago by an angry Hindu mob.

In fact, the upsurge of Hindu-Muslim violence has forced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party into its worst political crisis since it came to power in 1999 as the leading member of India's governing coalition.

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that is an important part of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's power base, has complicated matters further by announcing yesterday that Muslims in India must win the goodwill of Hindus in order to ensure their safety.

The violence on the subcontinent does not appear to be limited to angry mobs. New Delhi says Pakistani forces yesterday launched heavy artillery barrages on Indian troops in the divided territory of Kashmir. That fighting has brought an end to a month of relative calm in Kashmir.

Indian authorities say 13 people -- including at least 10 militants and two soldiers -- were killed in separate clashes across Kashmir during the weekend.