June 1999 News

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Kashmir town caught in India-Pakistan Crossfire

27 June 1999
Reuters
By Sanjeev Miglani

KARGIL, India, June 27 - Shops closed and people ran for cover in this Himalayan town on Sunday as India and Pakistan stepped up artillery firing across the military control line that divides the disputed region of Kashmir.

Pakistani guns pounded Indian military positions in northern Kashmir, where New Delhi's troops launched an offensive to flush out guerrilla infiltrators over a month ago.

One of the shells hit a mountain close to an Indian helipad and several others landed outside Kargil town, which has faced much of the Pakistani fire this summer.

The low-lying town is directly in the line of fire of marksmen perched on the barren hills above.

Indian guns opened up in retaliation, and residents in ravaged Kargil witnessed a deadly duel.

"This is our gola (shell)," said a policeman as the deafening roar of a gun somewhere in the mountains shattered the silence.

Witnesses said the two sides exchanged artillery fire through the night on Saturday, but no casualties were reported.

"We don't let them sleep and they make sure we don't either," said one Indian gunner.

Last month Pakistani shelling destroyed an ammunition dump and blew off television antennae in Kargil, triggering a long chain of guerrilla infiltration and attacks that India says was planned by Islamabad's armed forces.

Hundreds of heavily armed guerrillas have occupied the high ground on a 140-km (88-mile) swathe of Himalayan ridges, stretching from the Mushkoh Valley to Kargil in the east.

"This is one of the few points on the LOC (line of control) where they are at an advantage," said a field commander.

"We can terrorise their villages likewise at scores of places on the LOC", he said.

The shelling on Kargil, which stands halfway on the key highway linking Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, with Leh, the biggest town in the remote Buddhist enclave of Ladakh, had not affected movement on the strategic highway, a top army official said.

"NH-1A (National highway) has not been interrupted for a single day," said Colonel Avtar Singh, coordinating army operations in the Kargil-Batalik sectors.

The artillery duel has escalated at a time when Indian troops are locked in close combat with guerrillas entrenched in the Kargil-Batalik enclave, near the control line with Pakistan.

While ground forces helped by sustained air campaign have succeed in clearing up key ridges in the Drass sector, progress in the Kargil-Batalik enclave has been slow and costly.

Guerrillas have taken positions in mountain ridges as high as 5,000 to 5,500 metres (16,500-18,150 feet) in the Batalik sector. "It takes time for my men to get up, get behind them and launch," said Colonel Singh.

It was in Kaksar near Kargil where a large-scale breach of of the control line was first noticed. "These were unheld positions where anybody can walk in. And that is probably what happened," said Singh.

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