India, Pakistan exchange heavy fire over Kashmir

Pakistani envoy expelled

buildup for war feared

May 19, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW DELHI, India - Indian and Pakistani troops bombarded each other yesterday with heavy mortar and gunfire, and India announced that it was expelling Pakistan's ambassador to protest an attack four days ago that killed the wives and children of Indian army soldiers, among others.

India has accused Pakistan of sponsoring the three heavily armed gunmen who killed a total of 32 people Tuesday, as well as backing militants who have committed other such acts. Pakistan denies complicity and says it is working to stamp out militant groups operating on its soil.

Yesterday's diplomatic slap at Pakistan was just a preliminary step, with more weighty decisions yet to come, a senior Indian official said. "This is a signal to both Pakistan and the West that India is serious about doing whatever it takes to bring this menace to an end," he said.

As intended, such talk is stoking fears among American officials that war may be looming between India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear capabilities. India wants the United States to pressure Pakistan to take tougher action against Islamic militant groups waging a proxy war on Pakistan's behalf in Jammu and Kashmir, India's only majority Muslim state.

Already, India has stationed a million men along the India-Pakistan border - a mobilization India initiated after a five-man squad attacked its Parliament on Dec. 13. At that time, India held Pakistan responsible. It recalled its ambassador and severed bus and train service between the two countries.

India now seems to be taking the steps needed to go to war. Yesterday, Indian army, navy and air force chiefs briefed the prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and senior Cabinet members on military options for countering what India regards as Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Both countries claim the territory, which has been the cause of more than a half-century of conflict between them.

Friday and yesterday, Indian and Pakistani troops fired at each other in Jammu - with each side saying the other started it.

Upon emerging from the military briefing yesterday, Jaswant Singh, India's foreign minister, said: "Very extensive damage has been caused in retaliation. There was provocation on the Pakistani side."

Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistan's military government, charged yesterday that since 8 a.m. India had bombarded with artillery 13 sectors in Kashmir along the line of control dividing the portions of Kashmir that India and Pakistan control. "It is a very heavy bombardment and they are using all sorts of weapons," Qureshi said.

Yesterday, Aziz Ahmed Khan, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, called the expulsion of Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi unfortunate. "Actions like these add to tension, whereas efforts should be in reduction of tension," he said on state television. "Pakistan, despite this action of India which has disappointed us, will continue to strive to resolve all issues with India through negotiations and through peaceful means."

But, Nirupama Rao, spokeswoman for India's Foreign Ministry, said yesterday, "We are deeply concerned about Pakistan's continued support for terrorism and terrorist groups."

As tensions mount, American officials are increasingly worried that India may carry out an air or commando strike on training camps for militants in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India contends that more than 70 camps have recently sprung up, staffed by groups that Pakistan ostensibly banned but that have regrouped under different names.

An armed conflict between India and Pakistan could endanger American forces searching for al-Qaida and Taliban operatives in Pakistan and spiral into a full-scale war between two of the world's largest armies, American officials and military experts say.

The State Department is expected to work intensely to persuade Pakistan to be more effective in shutting down militant Islamic groups based in Pakistan-held Kashmir.

The American ambassador, Robert Blackwill, met last week with several of the main decision makers in the Indian government. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell phoned his Indian counterpart, Singh, on Thursday. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is expected to visit in coming weeks.

The Indian government is acting with urgency. Yesterday Vajpayee canceled a long-planned vacation and will instead stay here for more military briefings. Next week, he will fly to Jammu and Kashmir, where he is likely to visit the army camp where the attackers struck.

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