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Renewed offensive

Print edition : Jun 20, 1998 T+T-

EXCHANGE of fire between Indian and Pakistani forces along the Line of Control (LoC) has been an almost routine affair for quite some time now. However, between May 13 and 24, immediately after India carried out the Pokhran II tests, the firing from the Pakistan side intensified. The targets were the Indian forward posts in the Kanzalwan, Machal, Uri Karnah, Noorkhoot and Kargil sectors and some posts in the Poonch region. Heavy artillery, air defence guns and mortars were used in this offensive in which two Indian civilians were injured.

According to sources in the Army, following an exchange of fire in the Kargil sector in August and September 1997, it had been agreed that neither side would use heavy artillery.

The Indian Army, according to a spokesperson, retaliated in a "restrained but appropriate manner". It moved heavy weapons to several forward posts and marginally increased the deployment of forces along the LoC and the international border.

According to an assessment of the Army, the immediate purpose of the firing was to provide cover for trained militant groups to cross over to India. On the night of May 13, the Pakistani forces tried to push in heavily armed militants into Kargil under cover of gunfire. The Indian forces blocked this move.

The overall nature of the Pakistani operations have indicated a heightening of tensions. There may be no direct correlation between India's nuclear tests and the Pakistani offensive; but the explosions generated extra heat. For instance, the firing along the LoC intensified, especially in the Poonch sector, immediately after Pokhran II.

The first signs of tension rising, defence sources say, were noticed even before the tests. In the second week of April, immediately after the test-firing of the Ghauri missile, Pakistani forces stepped up efforts to help militants penetrate the border along the Rajouri and Poonch sectors. The defence establishment, which was of the opinion that the immediate threat to security was not the Ghauri missile but infiltration, strengthened the Army units involved in counter-insurgency operations. Then came the massacre in Prankote village in Udhampur district on April 17 in which 26 persons were killed by pro-Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba militants. Following this, Home Minister L.K. Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes visited several areas in Jammu and Kashmir. These visits emphasised the point that India would bolster its security systems and was prepared for any eventuality. Pakistan registered its reaction by describing the killing of 21 villagers in the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) village of Bindha Mohri Sehri on April 26 as the handiwork of Indian security forces.

This added to the tension. However, defence sources told Frontline that there was no war-like intent on either side even at that time. There was no substantial increase in the deployment of Pakistani forces along either the LoC or the international border.

There was, however, a significant shift in the pattern of Pakistani troop deployment along the LoC after Islama-bad carried out its first nuclear test on May 28 and imposed a state of national emergency. More troops were visible across the border. There were also reports that the Pakistan Army had been put on maximum alert, expecting an Indian assault on its posts in POK. Whether Pakistan will confine itself to what the security forces describe as a pr-oxy war is in the realm of conjecture.