Fears of war between Pakistan and India are on the rise after days of cross-border shelling by each side in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said today it is "time for a decisive battle" against Islamic insurgents that he says are backed by Pakistan. For their part, authorities in Islamabad blame New Delhi for yesterday's assassination of a moderate Muslim separatist leader who had sought dialogue with India on self-determination for Kashmiris.
Prague, 22 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told soldiers on the disputed Kashmir border today that it is "time for a decisive battle" against Islamic insurgents in the region.
With New Delhi accusing Pakistan of training and arming the militants, Vajpayee's remarks have fueled fears of a possible war between the two nuclear-capable states. Each side accuses the other of supporting terrorism to achieve their goals in Kashmir.
Speaking in the town of Kupwara today, Vajpayee told 600 Indian soldiers that they should be prepared for battle. The soldiers are stationed close to the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani control.
"Let's work for victory. Be prepared for sacrifices. But our aim should be victory. Because it's now time for a decisive fight."
Vajpayee said India has been forced to fight a "proxy war" against Pakistan as it battles militants who have been fighting the last 12 years for Kashmir's independence or a merger with Pakistan.
Vajpayee also stressed that his visit to Kupwara was meant as a signal that Pakistan should immediately halt its alleged support for Islamic separatists in Kashmir.
"My coming here is a signal. Whether our neighbor understands that signal or not, or the world keeps track of it or not, [I don't know]. But history will remember this and we will write a new history of our victory."
Vajpayee did not specify what steps India would take, other than to say that the country is ready to fight if provocations in Kashmir continue.
"This situation is a challenge for us, and we have accepted this challenge. We want peace. Our objective is to be involved in development. We want to make India a prosperous nation. We want to fight poverty, diseases, and unemployment, but we are being forced to fight a war that is being thrust on us, and we will fight that, as well. And we will win that war, too. No one should have any doubts about that."
Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes says Indian soldiers have been anticipating a battle over Kashmir for months.
"For the past three to four months, whenever I visit Indian army posts, I speak to the soldiers and ask them what is going through their minds --- and they always have a one sentence reply: 'When will we be given the marching orders.'"
New Delhi's warnings to Islamabad come after nearly a week of shelling by both Indian and Pakistani forces across the line of control that divides Kashmir. More than 20 civilians and soldiers have been killed and scores have been injured in the last five days.
The shelling began after an attack last week by Islamic militants against an Indian army base in Kashmir that left more than 30 people dead. India also blames Pakistan for that attack. Authorities in Islamabad deny any involvement.
Both India and Pakistan have deployed nearly one million troops along their common borders since December -- the biggest military buildup in the region since their last war in 1971. Pakistan and India fought wars over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965, as well.
On the Pakistan-administered side of Kashmir, authorities also are warning that the situation could deteriorate into all-out war.
Lieutenant Colonel Iftikhar Ali Khan, who commands Pakistan army troops in the Chakothi District of Kashmir, less than one kilometer from the line of control, blames India.
"This highly explosive situation has been increased by India where the armed forces of the two countries have been put eyeball-to-eyeball and an unintended accident can trigger a chain of activities which can result in a disaster in the region."
Pakistan's Foreign Ministry condemned the shooting death yesterday of Abdul Gani Lone, a moderate Muslim separatist leader who had sought dialogue with India in order to bring self-determination for Kashmiris. Lone was shot at a meeting of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference in Srinagar -- a gathering of 23 parties campaigning against Indian rule in Kashmir.
The Foreign Ministry in Islamabad called Lone's death "yet another incident in the continuing reign of terror unleashed by the occupying forces in Indian-held Kashmir."
Sayed Zaffar, a former member of Pakistan's Senate, expressed similar views about Lone's death -- blaming the shooting on New Delhi.
"The Indian agencies and Indian armed forces which are involved in these terrorist activities, they are responsible for this martyrdom. They killed [Abdul] Gani Lone because he was a prominent leader and one of the leaders of the All Pakistan Hurriyat Conference that started this struggle against Indian occupation in Jammu and Kashmir."
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has announced plans to visit India and Pakistan next week. Straw said in London yesterday that rising tensions over Kashmir have created a crisis the world cannot ignore. Straw says the possibility of war between the nuclear rivals is "real and very disturbing."
The U.S. administration also is urging talks between the two countries. Washington plans to send Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the region to try to calm the situation.
Authorities in Washington say U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and others in the administration are focused, first, on trying to end the terrorist attacks in Kashmir. Then they will work toward a withdrawal of Indian and Pakistan troops from along their common border and from the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.