Masked assassins gun down Kashmiri separatist leader

India and Pakistan accuse each other of silencing key voice of moderation


NEW DELHI, India - Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate Kashmiri separatist leader, was assassinated yesterday in Srinagar in India's Jammu-Kashmir state. The governments of India and Pakistan immediately charged each other with the killing, bringing the already tense region a few steps closer to war.

The killing occurred on the fifth straight day of fierce artillery fire between the armies of the two nations, the world's two newest nuclear powers. One million soldiers face each other on a hair trigger along a 1,800-mile border.

India fully mobilized its forces after a five-man assault team attacked Parliament in the nation's capital Dec. 13. Last week, a terrorist raid on a bus and the family quarters of an army camp killed 32 in the region of Jammu.

Soon after Lone's assassination last evening, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived in the city of Jammu at the start of a three-day visit to Jammu-Kashmir.

Two masked gunmen dressed as police officers shot Lone as he left a public rally near Srinagar's Martyrs Cemetery, considered hallowed ground by a generation that has fought for Kashmiri independence from India.

One of Lone's security guards also died in the attack.

According to witnesses, the violence began with the gunmen lobbing a hand grenade into the sizable crowd. It created a panic but failed to explode.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assassination, but political leaders were quick to ascribe blame with self-assuredness.

"Whoever wants a peaceful solution in Kashmir is killed by Pakistan," said Farooq Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir's chief minister.

Vajpayee praised Lone in death far more than he had commended him in life, saying he was killed because "he was working for peace."

Indeed, Lone, 70, was willing to at least consider participation in the state's coming elections, something most of his associates in Kashmir's leading separatist alliance - the All Party Hurriyat Conference - were unwilling to do. Recent elections in Kashmir have been marred by fraud, further alienating Kashmiris from the New Delhi governments inclined to preselect the winners.

Vajpayee has promised fair elections, and in part this pledge is one of the reasons for his current visit. Separatist hard-liners have been harshly critical of anyone who has softened their opposition to Indian rule.

These elections were one reason for India to forestall any punitive strikes against Pakistan, which it blames for years of terrorist attacks.

But senior Indian officials said that intelligence reports showed that Pakistan had intentions of sabotaging the elections.

Lone's assassination will probably be used as yet another Indian argument for a punitive raid against Pakistan, an attack the United States and other nations are trying to avert, fearing among other things a war that could be nuclear.

But the assassination also fits several situations that India's archenemy would prefer to believe. "The murder of Abdul Ghani Lone is yet another incident in the continuing reign of terror unleashed by the occupying forces in Indian-held Kashmir for the past 12 years," the Pakistani government stated.

"The occupying forces have been engaged in a brutal effort to crush the Kashmiri spirit through murder, violence and rape. They will never succeed in their despicable design," it said.

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