Pakistan calls off Kashmir invaders

July 1999 News

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Pakistan calls off Kashmir invaders

10 July 1999
Guardian
By: Suzanne Goldenberg

Tarnished Indian military tries to claim victory

India's army yesterday claimed to be routing the intruders who captured strategic heights in Kashmir. The assertion came on the day Pakistan's government appealed to Islamic militants to withdraw.

Yesterday's reported victories - which could not be independently confirmed - were the most spectacular in two months of merciless fighting for the ice-capped ridges on India's side of Kashmir's disputed frontier around the town of Kargil.

Meanwhile, Pakistani generals and government officials were endorsing last week's undertaking by their prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to defuse this most serious confrontation between the two neighbours in nearly 30 years.

Succumbing to fierce US and Chinese pressure, Mr Sharif agreed to roll back the intrusion at a three-hour meeting in Washington last weekend with President Clinton.

Pakistan continues to insist that the forces on the Indian side of the line are Kashmiri freedom fighters beyond its control - though its own Northern Light Infantry battalions are widely accepted to have led the intrusion.

This official distinction accounts for yesterday's cabinet statement, which stopped short of an outright call for a withdrawal from Indian-administered territory.

"Pakistan should appeal to the mojahedin [fighters] to help resolve the current Kargil situation," the statement from Islamabad's cabinet defence committee said. It gave no details of how that withdrawal would be effected, or of a ceasefire.

However, even that appeal will be seen as a betrayal by Pakistan's powerful and armed Islamist groups, who greeted Mr Sharif's return from Washington with black flags, and by the separatist militants who have been fighting in Kashmir for a decade. "If they have made the appeal, we don't accept it," said a spokesman for one group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

In New Delhi, too, officials say no withdrawal is underway.

Instead, India's army claims a series of stunning victories over an estimated force of 1,000 well entrenched men, confounding military analysts who have predicted the fighting will drag on until the onset of winter in September. "It's not a withdrawal. They have been pushed out," Colonel Bikram Singh told a briefing yesterday.

On two of the most fiercely contested portions of the 110km line of windswept ridges, he said, "the defences of the enemy have crumbled". He said Indian soldiers had recaptured 99% of the high ground in Batalik, and 90% of the heights in Dras, from where the intruders had regularly bombarded India's sole road route through the region.

India claimed to have suffered no casualties in yesterday's fighting. Most of this brutal confrontation has seen corpses abandoned on desolate peaks for weeks at a time. In two months of fighting, each side has taken only one prisoner.

According to official figures, India has lost more than 320 troops, and killed twice as many Pakistani foes.

The high casualties - and the monumental intelligence blunder which allowed the intruders several months to fortify their mountain bunkers - may make it attractive for the Indian military now to transform a withdrawal into a victory. That would also suit India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is going to face elections in September and October.

Yesterday Pakistan was also trying to extract some comfort from its misadventure by highlighting President Clinton's pledge to take a "personal interest" in the stalled Indian-Pakistani peace process.

The cabinet defence committee said it was significant that the US had agreed to play such a role for the first time: "Pakistan's objective of focusing international attention on the Kashmir issue and securing US involvement with the process for the settlement had been achieved."

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