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South Asia: India-Pakistan Relations Decline Following Massacre Of Kashmiri Hindus

Tensions between India and Pakistan appear to be taking another turn for the worse after a weekend attack by suspected Islamic militants killed 28 Hindu civilians in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The massacre comes within weeks of planned visits to the subcontinent by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell aimed at defusing the Kashmir crisis.

Islamabad, 15 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The governments of Pakistan and India are once again accusing each other of fueling tensions in the disputed region of Kashmir after an attack late on 13 July by suspected Islamic militants killed 28 people near Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

India has accused Pakistan of being behind the attack at Qasim Nasar, an impoverished shantytown on the outskirts of Jammu that is occupied mostly by Hindu laborers. Witnesses said eight to 10 men lobbed grenades and opened fire on the town. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Indian parliament today condemned the attack but delayed by one day its formal response to the massacre. But during a visit to Qasim Nasar yesterday, Indian Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said the attack represents "terrorism in its most naked form." Also yesterday, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh alleged that the killings were "inspired by Pakistan." Pakistan has been quick to condemn the killings.

Shops and schools closed down today in Jammu. Local leaders said the city was crippled by a one-day strike called by Hindu nationalists to protest what they said was the government's inability to prevent incursions by Islamic militants allegedly backed by Pakistan.

Sattal Grover, a local leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), described the situation in Jammu: "The entire city of Jammu, including shops, schools and colleges -- everything is closed. Attendance was also very poor in government and other offices because of lack of public transport. The strike will continue throughout the day."

India has repeatedly accused Pakistan's military government of supporting infiltrations by Islamic militants across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani rule. Senior officials in New Delhi say government agencies in Pakistan are using terrorism in an attempt to force negotiations over the status of Kashmir -- and ultimately, to bring Kashmir under Pakistan's control.

For its part, Islamabad has condemned the attack, saying that it was a clear attempt to increase tensions in the region. But the government in Islamabad denies any link to the attack.

A spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Aziz Ahmed Khan, also repeated Islamabad's long-held position that authorities in Indian-controlled Kashmir are fueling terrorism by repressing the majority Muslim population there.

Khan said India must adopt a path of "reason, justice, and dialogue" to resolve the Kashmir dispute according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

This latest attack comes just weeks before planned diplomatic missions to the subcontinent by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Both are seeking to bring an end to more than half a century of bickering and violence over Kashmir.

Speaking today in Beijing, Straw condemned the attack and called for action: "[The attack] obviously calls for a firm police response, as I'm sure will happen, by the police in the part of Jammu in which the outrage took place. At the same time, it's very important that the measures already taken to de-escalate the tension across the line of control are continued and that both sides work towards a resumption of dialogue."

More than 1 million troops are still deployed along both sides of the border between the nuclear-capable countries. Those troops were mobilized amid a series of militant attacks within India and Indian-controlled Kashmir since last December.

The crisis reached a disturbing peak in mid-May after militants stormed an Indian army base in Kashmir and killed 34 people -- most of them the wives and children of Indian troops. An intense diplomatic drive by both Powell and Straw helped bring the two countries back from the brink of war.

But RFE/RL's correspondent in Islamabad reports that the latest violence has, without doubt, worsened relations between India and Pakistan once again -- and thus, complicated the task of Powell and Straw during their upcoming visits.

Witnesses in Qasim Nasar told police that as many as eight militants disguised in the robes of sadhus (Hindu holy men) walked into Qasim Nasar late in the day. The witnesses said the men threw three or four hand grenades and then began firing assault rifles indiscriminately at residents and at worshippers at two Hindu temples.

Authorities say the attackers fled into the forested hills near Jammu. Indian troops are continuing to search that area today. Security officials also have been placed on high alert across India. Doctors say most of the 28 victims were women and children. Scores of other civilians also were injured, including 10 who remain in critical condition.

While the governments of India and Pakistan have been accusing each other of responsibility for tensions in Kashmir, the leader of a coalition of mujahedin groups in Pakistan is seeking to distance his organization from the violence.

Syed Salahuddin, the chairman of a Pakistan-based Muttahida Jihad Council, is denying that any of the 15 groups in his alliance have ever targeted civilians of any race or religion. Salahuddin also accused Indian authorities of planning and carrying out attacks like the one in Qasim Nasar in an attempt to discredit mujahedin groups.

Meanwhile, authorities in Pakistan today took a highly publicized step in their campaign to combat terrorism within Pakistan. Four Islamic militants were found guilty today by a Pakistan court in the kidnapping and murder of "The Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl earlier this year.

The British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, better known as Sheikh Omar, was sentenced to death and his three accomplices to 25 years in prison after being convicted of charges that include conspiracy, kidnapping for ransom, murder, and destruction of evidence as part of a national and international terrorist plot. The defendants say they will appeal the verdict.