Kashmir voters face attack threats

One-month polling period scheduled to start today

September 16, 2002|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SRINIGAR, India -- Torn between threats of increased militant attacks and promises of government reform, voters here in the rugged Himalayan territory of Kashmir must decide beginning today whether to risk casting ballots in crucial state elections.

With tensions over the disputed region still high between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan, the election is one of Kashmir's most important -- and could end up one of its bloodiest.

The voting will be staggered over a month to allow Indian authorities to move a half-million local police and federal soldiers around the state to guard polling places.

But yesterday, separatist guerrillas who have demanded a vote boycott carried out the latest in a rash of assassination attempts.

State Tourism Minister Sakina Itoo narrowly escaped an ambush that left two of her bodyguards dead. When a vehicle in her motorcade struck a land mine, the guerrillas opened fire, but Itoo was not injured.

On Wednesday, militants killed the law minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone. In May, the guerrillas killed Abdul Ghani Lone, a popular and moderate separatist leader.

At least 110 people have been killed in Kashmir since the election campaign began last month. Of the dead, 62 were members of the security forces, 26 were civilians, and 22 were political activists, according to police. Indian security forces claim that they killed more than 395 militants in Jammu and Kashmir in June, July and August.

India says the election violence is being encouraged by Pakistan, which has called the polling a farce and maintains that India is obliged under United Nations resolutions to allow Kashmiris to vote for union with Pakistan, continued affiliation with India or independence.

"Misusing the rationale of the war against terrorism, India has sought to de-legitimize the Kashmir freedom struggle, tarnish Pakistan with the brush of terrorism and drive a wedge between it and its coalition partners," Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said yesterday that Musharraf's rhetoric had "gone beyond the limits."

Musharraf insists that he is keeping his promise to the United States to stop guerrillas infiltrating the roughly one-third of Kashmir under Indian control. But India's intelligence agencies claim that the militants' incursions continue with the aid of the Pakistani military, which Musharraf commands.

Citing radio intercepts, a senior Indian intelligence official said in an interview that militant commanders based in Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir have issued orders to their followers to disrupt the state elections in Indian-held areas.

Pakistan's military intelligence organization, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, "does not directly get involved in specifying the operations," according to the Indian source. "However, they do give general directions."

It is not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the alleged radio intercepts.

Paul Watson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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