June 1999 News

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India's Mountaineering Warriors

29 June 1999
Washington Post

Heights of Kashmir As Hostile as Enemy

By: Pamela Constable

KARGIL, India, June 28 Small squads of Indian soldiers trained in high-altitude warfare inch their way up steep, ice-streaked ridges under cover of artillery fire, while enemy fighters shoot straight down at them from crude but nearly impregnable bunkers.

This is what warfare is like between 14,000 and 16,000 feet, where India and Pakistan have been battling for more than a month in the latest round of their decades-old conflict over Kashmir. At least 200 Indian soldiers, Pakistani troops and guerrilla fighters have died on a battlefield so high in the remote Himalayas that even walking a short distance can be difficult for those unaccustomed to the altitude.

"Our men are climbing up on all fours, using ropes and special climbing gear, with bayonet rifles fixed at the hip," said Col. Atvar Singh, the Indian general staff officer in this little town a few miles from the front. "It's like one of those old Audie Murphy movies."

India has vowed to drive out an estimated 300 rebels who infiltrated the Indian side of the mountains in April, insisting that most of the fighters in reality are Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan insists the rebels are Kashmiris and other Islamic volunteers seeking to liberate the southern part of the disputed territory from India's control.

While asserting confidently that it is only a matter of weeks before the intruders are driven out or killed, Singh and other military officials here admit their progress has been excruciatingly slow. About 15 miles northeast of here in the area of Batalik, for example, Singh acknowledged, only one of four occupied ridges has been "cleared of the enemy" after weeks of fighting and shelling.

At a separate briefing in a military camp beside a rushing glacial stream, Col. A.S. Chabbawal said it could take "a few months" before India defeats the intruders. In some areas, he said, "we are inching up gradually; daily we may push them back a few hundred meters."

Conditions are so hostile, Chabbawal said, that each combat soldier needs two or three men close behind him with supplies and weapons support.

The rumble of shellfire echoes every few hours through the barren hills surrounding Kargil, a mountain resort in normal times that lies 450 miles north of the Indian capital, New Delhi.

When the thunder rolls softly, no one in Kargil flinches, because people recognize the sound of outgoing fire from Indian artillery nests that dot the surrounding slopes. But when it cracks sharply, that means incoming fire from Pakistan. Children clutch their parents' hands, cows moo, shopkeepers look up from their hookah water pipes and everyone searches the horizon for puffs of smoke on the ridges a few hundred yards away.

Tens of thousands of inhabitants of Kargil and nearby communities have been evacuated, and journalists are not permitted to travel beyond here except for brief visits to artillery positions on nearby ridges. It is evident from the military buildup in this region that India is determined to flush out the infiltrators and make up for the embarrassment of allowing them to sneak in undetected and keep one of the world's largest military establishments at bay for weeks.

The conflict over this mountainous region has been going on for half a century. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir as their own. They have gone to war over the area twice since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, with more fighting during the Bangladesh war in 1971.

Diplomatic contacts between the two governments have multiplied, but threats of wider war are just as numerous. Pakistan said today, for instance, that two Indian warplanes violated its airspace near Kargil and said it "reserves the right to take appropriate defensive measures if such violations are repeated," the Associated Press reported from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

Dozens of artillery nests have been dug beside mountain rivers near here, and 155mm Bofors howitzers roar and spew clouds of dust as they fire shell after shell over the ridges toward the Line of Control that separates Indian from Pakistani Kashmir.

Although most inhabitants of the region have been evacuated, the road is choked with convoys of troop trucks and commercial cargo carriers pressed into war duty, ferrying everything from ammunition to chocolate bars. Despite the dangerous curves, they travel swiftly to avoid being targeted by Pakistani artillery, and after dark the convoys crawl with their headlights off.

At one especially steep curve, many military drivers stop at a small shed with red banners fluttering above it. Inside is a shrine to Krishna, a popular Hindu god. The men touch the shrine for luck and continue on.

The danger is greatest around Dras, a village of field-stone houses southwest of here that is abandoned except for cows set free to graze and soldiers camped in hotels and bunkers. The rebels penetrated nearly four miles inside Indian-held territory there and still control several ridges beyond the town. The area is shelled heavily and continuously from Pakistan.

Last week, Indian army officials here said, their troops captured a major ridge in the Dras area known as Point 5140. In a fierce battle, they said, Indian forces killed 35 enemy fighters, most identified as Pakistani soldiers. At a briefing, the Indian officers showed visiting journalists a collection of what they said were Pakistani army rifles, machine guns and ammunition.

Military officials said more Pakistani troops are still lodged in the ridges. They said their positions are so high and fortified that two or three fighters can fend off literally hundreds of Indian troops trying to scale the ridges below and surround them. Indian warplanes periodically strafe the ridges, but officials said most are so steep and narrow that air attacks have only a limited effect.

For the inhabitants of Kargil, life has become a daily struggle against war anxiety and economic depression. The polyglot community -- which normally includes Nepalese refugees, Kashmiri businessmen, Ladakhi Buddhists and Shiite Muslims -- is now largely deserted. Sixty percent of the inhabitants have been relocated to outlying villages, as have thousands more from Dras and Batalik.

In the markets, the most visible shoppers are Indian troops in commando and camouflage uniforms, browsing for snacks or waiting for hours to call their families from public telephone booths. Shopkeepers say their trucks risk getting shelled on the highway, and cargo drivers are charging double the usual fee for a delivery from Srinagar, the nearest large city and Kashmir's summer capital, about 150 miles west.

"So many people have run away from the shelling. It happens day after day," said Haji Mohammed Hussain, a butcher.

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