Prepare for `decisive battle,' India leader says

Worry grows that an act of terror could spark war

May 23, 2002|By BOSTON GLOBE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - India's prime minister traveled yesterday to the tense Kashmir front line and told his troops to prepare for a "decisive battle" against Islamic insurgents from Pakistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Office responded by saying that negotiations should be held to ease the tension over the India-controlled territory, but that India should "desist from such blatant warmongering" and any Indian offensive would be "met with full force."

The escalation in rhetoric came several days ahead of renewed U.S. and British efforts to mediate the conflict. But in both countries, and in capitals around the world, apprehension is growing that a terrorist act by an extremist could trigger all-out war between the two nuclear powers. India and Pakistan have fought three wars, two over Kashmir.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain said the "possibility of war between India and Pakistan is real and very disturbing. This is a crisis the world cannot ignore."

The United States urged restraint by both countries. "The situation is a tense one," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. "There is no question that the entire administration has been in touch with associates in Pakistan and associates in India."

More than a million troops are along the cease-fire line - 750,000 of them Indian soldiers - the largest buildup in more than three decades. Five Indian warships were ordered to move closer to waters off Pakistan yesterday. Both sides also have stepped up cross-border shelling, killing dozens of people in the past week.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told more than 600 soldiers at an army base in Kupwara, India, "to be ready for sacrifice. Your goal should be victory. It's time to fight a decisive battle."

He said his rallying cry for the troops should show Pakistan that India is prepared to fight.

"Whether our neighbor gets that signal or not, whether the world keeps record of that or not, we will write a new chapter of victory," Vajpayee said in his brief speech, which was carried live on national television. "Our neighbor has found a new way of fighting, through a proxy war."

India accuses Pakistan of training and arming Islamic militants who have fought for Kashmir's independence or merger with Pakistan for 12 years. Pakistan has said it can't control the militants.

The recent spike in tension began after last week's attack by suspected Islamic militants on an army camp on the outskirts of Jammu, the capital of India's Jammu-Kashmir state. The attack killed 34 people.

In Islamabad, President Pervez Musharraf called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet and National Security Council. Afterward, the government issued a statement, saying it would not allow terrorists to be based in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.

But the statement also said Pakistan would continue its "moral, political, and diplomatic support" to what it called the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination. "India must not harbor any illusions about winning a war against Pakistan," Aziz Khan, a Foreign Office spokesman, said in a statement.

Pakistani political analyst Mushahid Hussain, a former government minister, said Vajpayee's statement yesterday "certainly raised the temperature almost to a boiling point and almost was drawing a certain line not in the sand, but in the hills of Kashmir now. He's telling Pakistan to blink."

But other analysts in Pakistan and New Delhi have said that it is unlikely that the conflict would escalate into a huge battle before visits this month by Straw and Richard Armitage, U.S. deputy secretary of state, unless there were attacks.

"It's the same as the Arafat syndrome," Hussain said, referring to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "He condemns suicide bombing and then someone blows himself up and blows up a cease-fire. ... Even if Pakistan or India don't do anything, an extremist could light the fuse."

Retired General Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistan's intelligence service, said yesterday that Musharraf needs the help of the United States to rein in Kashmiri separatists.

"He should tell America that we have to put some restraint on them, and tell them we will take this issue to the United Nations," Gul said. "The real cause of the problem is not what the extremists are doing, but that the people of Kashmir have been denied their right of self-determination."

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