Renewed hostilities

Print edition : February 05, 2000

The fresh round of clashes along the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir could snowball into a serious crisis and help Pakistan's calls for a U.S.-authored solution to the Kashmir conflict find sympathy abroad.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

EIGHT months after the beginning of the Kargil War, the areas along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir are once again resounding with machine gun fire. At least half a dozen major skirmishes have occurred in the past month in the Jammu and Le h divisions. Firing on border posts are not particularly unusual since Pakistan has traditionally helped terrorists and foreign mercenaries to infiltrate from across the border by subjecting India's forward positions to suppressive fire. But read in the context of a general escalation of violence in the State, renewed hostilities along the LoC could snowball into a serious crisis.

Pakistani soldiers entrenched near the ruins of one of their border posts along the LoC, which was destroyed by the Indian Army.-B.K. BANGASH/ AP

The worst attack took place in the Akhnoor sector of the Jammu division on January 22, ahead of Republic Day. Indian officials said that at least 18 Pakistani soldiers were killed when Indian troops repulsed an assault by soldiers of the 24 Bhaluch Regim ent on an Indian position, PP 13, in the Pallanwalla area of Akhnoor. The Pakistani attack was backed by mortar fire. Six bodies, including that of an officer, were recovered by Indian soldiers. (Two attempts were made to capture the post, on August 31 a nd September 12, 1999, but they were not executed on the scale of the January offensive.)

Pakistan promptly claimed that the casualties were inflicted by Indian soldiers who had stormed its border position. While this does not explain how the bodies of Pakistani soldiers ended up on the Indian side, some observers believe that the fighting co uld have in fact involved limited incursions by both sides. Late last year Pakistan had claimed that Indian troops had crossed the LoC near Gulmarg in order to attack a position where terrorists tasked to attack forward Indian posts had been positioned. At least 12 Pakistani troops were killed in that operation, although their bodies were again recovered on the Indian side.

As in the past, Pakistan responded to the Pallanwalla firing with a massive artillery barrage. A civilian, Puran Chand of Gangriyal village, died in the fire. Pallanwalla town has been deserted ever since its 15,000 residents were evacuated during the Ka rgil offensive. Intelligence officials believe that the latest artillery barrage was used by at least one Harkat-ul-Ansar group, led by Arshad Khan, to cross the LoC to Jammu. Several reports of similar infiltration preceded Republic Day celebrations in the State; in Jammu city timer-fitted rockets were discovered days before the event.

The Pallanwalla fighting is just part of a larger pattern of similar incidents. On December 31, Pakistani troops attacked the Amar Post in the Turtok area in Leh, leading again to massive artillery duels. Details of the incident and of the casualties are yet to emerge. What is known is that the Amar post assault was followed in quick time by fighting at Thang Top, the mountain perched over the village of Thang, which India gained control of in the 1971 war. Both attacks, officials say, were repulsed. Sn iping is common in the Siachen area, to which Turtok is the gateway, but such concerted attacks have taken place after several months.

There is also considerable controversy surrounding a second reported incident of combat in the Kargil sector. In mid-January, reports began to circulate that Pakistani soldiers had occupied Indian posts above Niril and Badgam, mountain villages perched a bove Kargil town. Rumours circulating in the town provoked panic, particularly since Indian Army officials have ensured that no troops are withdrawn from winter positions despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Officials of 121 Brigade who are charged with the defence of the Kargil area, insist that all their posts are in position. While the Army's credibility about its forward positions was more than a little undermined by the truth of Kargil, in this particul ar case it appears that 121 Brigade's account may be correct.

Heightened tensions have, however, been witnessed throughout the State. Several Pakistani gun positions have been moved forward to the LoC in Turtok. Since routine shelling does not need artillery to be positioned so close to Indian positions, officials suspect that the Pakistani Army wishes to be prepared to hit targets deep on the Indian side. The Tangdhar area on the LoC's northwestern corner has also seen regular exchanges of fire. Indian deployments in the area were significantly strengthened after reports came in that Pakistani irregulars planned to cut off the Tangdhar-Srinagar road with artillery support. Intelligence reports suggested that a similar enterprise was planned in the Uri sector as well.

Border exchanges are just part of the problem. The series of attacks on Indian Army and police positions by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen suicide squads, called Fidayeen groups, continued unabated. In the latest incident, the 10th of its kind, two Harkat-ul-Mujahideen operatives attacked the Army's Tattoo parade ground in Batmaloo in Srinagar, while other members of the group suppressed its defences with grenades and rockets. Two soldiers were killed and six injured in the attack. Subsequent investigations revealed appalling security lapses.

Defence Minister George Fernandes charged Pakistan on January 24 with intensifying border clashes. But he seemed less than clear about just what the Government planned to do about the situation. After the bloody Pallanwalla clash, Pakistan's Chief Execut ive, General Pervez Musharraf, for his part, threatened to "teach India a lesson". Observers believe that the border exchanges, along with the sharp escalation of violence in the State, are designed to force the pace of the United States' intervention in the issue. With President Bill Clinton's visit to India expected soon, it would suit Pakistan to have the LoC in as fragile a state as possible.

Much of the Indian Government's time is being spent in persuading the U.S. to act against Pakistan though there is little reason to believe that its efforts will bear fruit. The U.S. does indeed appear to be pressuring the Pakistan Government and its int elligence apparatus to end their flagrant support to militant organisations such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. But the U.S' chief concern appears to be the Harkat's connections with the Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden (who is reportedly in Kandahar, under the protection of the Taliban) and other far-Right terrorist organisations in Afghanistan, and not its campaign in Jammu and Kashmir.

It has passed almost unnoticed that the Kargil War was preceded in the spring of 1999 by the worst artillery exchanges since 1971 along the LoC. A succession of communal massacres and attacks on security personnel too marked the build-up to the war. It i s hard to say just how events might play themselves out this time around, but it would be unwise to pretend that the prospect of another limited conventional engagement does not exist. Incidents such as the one at Pallanwalla illustrate that the patience of Indian troops on the ground is running out. Should the ongoing clashes escalate into wider hostilities, Pakistan's calls for a U.S-authored end to the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir may just find sympathetic ears abroad.

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