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Asia: Kashmir Violence Threatens Regional Stability, Complicates U.S.-Led War On Terrorism

India is vowing to retaliate for the raid in disputed Kashmir this week that killed 34 people. As New Delhi accuses Pakistan of direct responsibility for the attack, tensions are soaring between the subcontinent's two nuclear-equipped neighbors. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the crisis in Kashmir and how it complicates U.S.-led efforts to build regional stability and pursue the war on terrorism.

Prague, 15 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- No group has yet claimed responsibility for yesterday's guerrilla attack on an Indian army base in disputed Kashmir. But Indian officials are leaving no doubt as to who they believe is guilty.

In some of the strongest reaction from New Delhi yet over the raid -- which killed 34 people -- Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes accused Islamabad of being "directly responsible." At the same time, India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told his parliament that, "We will have to retaliate."

With tensions over the attack soaring, Islamabad has responded by saying it is too early to make any charges. Major General Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf, told reporters yesterday that, "We need to first ascertain the details of what has happened and only then can one comment."

Yet the spokesman left no doubt that Pakistan feels New Delhi has only itself to blame for being targeted by what Islamabad frequently refers to as "Kashmiri freedom fighters."

Qureshi said, "We know that the atrocities of the Indian armed forces on Kashmiris inside Indian-occupied Kashmir...have increased so much they were killing 10 to 15 Kashmiris every day. Obviously, that would give rise to frustration and anger."

The tit-for-tat accusations between Islamabad and New Delhi mirror those that follow almost every upsurge in violence in India's Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. New Delhi, which maintains a security force of some 400,000 troops in the troubled province, says it is fighting an insurgency directly armed and funded by Pakistan.

But Islamabad says it offers only moral support to what it regards as a legitimate Muslim separatist movement. Islamabad also says it favors a referendum for Kashmir's population to decide whether it wants independence, to join Pakistan, or to remain in India.

The latest violence is the bloodiest attack on India's authority in Kashmir in eight months and comes as tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad have only just begun to ease following another major crisis in December.

That crisis was an attack on India's parliament in New Delhi, which India blamed on Pakistani-based Kashmiri rebels. Immediately afterward, the two nuclear-capable countries massed a total of 1 million troops along their border, where they remain today. Tensions, however, had abated somewhat after a South Asian leaders' summit in Kathmandu and Musharraf's cracking down on extremist Pakistani groups as part of the U.S.-led war on terror. The crackdown included outlawing two groups blamed by India for the attack on its parliament.

U.S. officials were quick to condemn this week's attack as a serious challenge to their efforts to reduce friction between the two nuclear-armed states. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, who is on a trip to the region, said in New Delhi yesterday that the latest attack in Kashmir is the kind of attack that the war on terrorism aims to stop.

"I'd like, on behalf of my government, to condemn unequivocally the terrorist attack in [the city of] Jammu this morning. It is just this type of barbarism that the war on terrorism is determined to stop. I express my sympathies to the families of the victims," Rocca said.

Those statements were welcomed in India, where officials have sought to define their struggle with insurgents in Kashmir as part of the new global war on terrorism. Indian Defense Minister Fernandes referred to fighting in Kashmir as part of that larger war as he spoke today about punishment for this week's attack.

"What that punishment should be is something that will need to be deliberated upon, but we certainly cannot have this kind of terror go unpunished, particularly when there is a global fight against terrorism now," Fernandes said.

But Pakistan, which Rocca visits next, has refused so far to consider the insurgency in Kashmir as terrorism and is likely to stick to that position in the future. Instead, Islamabad has accused Indian forces of terrorizing the Kashmiri population. And even as Musharraf has banned several extremist Pakistani groups active in Kashmir, he has done so only on the basis of their continuing sympathies for the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. Several of Pakistan's extremist groups previously maintained camps in Afghanistan to train members to fight alongside the Taliban or in Kashmir.

That partial crackdown on militant groups complicates the U.S.-led war to root out Al-Qaeda and falls far short of India's demands regarding Kashmir. But Pakistani political experts say the popularity of what most Pakistanis regard as the Muslim Kashmiris' "freedom struggle" makes it extremely difficult for Musharraf to shut down the militant groups completely, even while under U.S. pressure to do so.

The Pakistani president said in January that Pakistan would not allow terrorist activity from its soil. But he added that, "Kashmir runs in our blood" and that, "We will never budge an inch from our principled stand on Kashmir," suggesting Islamabad will not cut off support for the struggle there.

As India now talks of retaliation, it has stopped short of saying whether it will retaliate against guerrillas in Kashmir or against Pakistan itself. But in the wake of the latest crisis, U.S. officials are scrambling to ensure the target is not Islamabad, which could plunge the two states into a new war. Tensions over Kashmir have already triggered two of the neighbors' three wars since 1947.

However, peacemakers may face a bigger test than this week's attack in the weeks directly ahead.

Indian officials say some 2,000 Pakistani militants have amassed on the Kashmir border and are waiting for the spring thaw to open mountain passes into the disputed province again.

Fernandes said this week that, "We have no doubt whatsoever that they are massed there to cross into our territory." He added that, "This can happen at any time, by the end of this month or early next month."

New Delhi has said it will regard the number of militants who slip into Kashmir as an indication of Islamabad's ability -- or willingness -- to reign in its Islamic militant groups. Indian hard-liners have called for New Delhi to carry out punitive strikes against Pakistan if attacks in Kashmir continue, and any new spring guerrilla offensive would put strong pressure on the Indian government to do that.

The region of Kashmir -- known officially as Jammu and Kashmir -- originally became part of India when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. At that time, the Hindu maharajah of the Muslim-majority region agreed to join his possessions to Hindu-dominated India rather than to Islamic Pakistan.

Today, after several wars, India controls slightly less than half of the region, Pakistan a third, and China the remaining areas.