May 1999 News

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Pakistani Holy Warriors Kill for Kashmir

2 May 1999
Reuters

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan- Moslem militant Abu Haibat Khan says he had to prove he had infiltrated Indian-held Kashmir to wage holy war, so he cut off the head of his Indian soldier captive and brought it back.

``I promised I would bring back proof and I prayed to Allah for victory,'' he told Reuters at a training camp for Islamic militants fighting a guerrilla war in Indian Kashmir.

``And by the grace of Allah, in an encounter with the Indian army I captured an officer, probably a major or a captain. I wanted to take him across the line of control but he tried to escape, and I had to kill him,'' he said.

By his account, he severed his victim's head and carried it back across the U.N.-monitored Line of Control to show to Pakistani soldiers ranged against their Indian counterparts in the alpine mountains of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

"I beheaded him and brought back his head for the Pakistani officer. I heard later the head circulated among the Pakistani soldiers for a couple of days," he said, with a smirk.

Khan says he crossed into India six times to fight Indian forces who control two-thirds of the Himalayan region, cause of two of the three Indo-Pakistani wars since independence from Britain in 1947 and the key irritant in tense relations.

There was no independent way of confirming his story, which chimes with Indian accusations that Pakistani Moslem militants have joined Pakistani Kashmiris to wage war against them.

Khan is a member of Mujahideen Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant Islamic group which draws recruits from religious schools or madrassas, much as Afghanistan's Taleban movement did, and brings them to training camps before sending them to India.

PRAYER, TRAINING AND DISAPPEARANCE

Most of the recruits are teenage boys whose preparation to participate in one of South Asia's most intractable conflicts is to pray, train, and pray again. Then they disappear over the ceasefire line, few ever to return.

"I pray to Allah in all my prayers to give me a martyr's death, but not before I have killed at least one Indian," said a 16-year-old recruit sporting the start of the obligatory beard.

More youths are being trained in a camp, Maskar Abdullah bin Masoud, just an hour's drive followed by a three-hour climb away from Pakistani Kashmir's capital of Muzaffarabad.

Militants pour scorn on February's Lahore Declaration signed by Pakistan and India, which committed the rivals to solve all disputes, including Kashmir, through dialogue.

"You are here because we want to tell the world that despite the Lahore Declaration, the Mujahideens are going to continue with their jihad (holy war)," an armed escort said as he accompanied a reporter to the camp.

More than 250 young recruits train in the camp, situated in a vast clearing about 2,300 metres (7,550 feet) above sea level. All are Pakistanis from villages and small towns in Punjab and the North Western Frontier Province.

It is the only group of several that is comprised solely of Pakistani rather than Kashmiri fighters. Pakistan says the militants are "freedom fighters". India says they are backed by the Pakistani government, a charge Islamabad angrily denies.

Militants say they are concerned that Indo-Pakistani peace talks could jeopardise their operations but are confident public pressure would stop the government taking action against them.

THE DUTY OF ALL MOSLEMS

"Jihad is part and parcel of the Islamic teachings. Our brothers in Kashmir are in distress and that is where jihad becomes a duty for all Moslems," the training camp's amir, or chief, code-named Abu Anas, told Reuters.

Lashkar is the militant wing of the Islamist Markazud Dawawal Irshad, formed in the early 1980s and based in Muridke, a small town near Punjab's capital of Lahore.

The group assisted different Afghan factions in their war against occupying Soviet troops and in 1985 formed its own militant wing, the Lashkar, which is Arabic for army.

Most of Lashkar's Afghan veterans were trained by Arab militants who, like Pakistanis, converged on Afghanistan in the hope the conflict would forge a pan-Islamic nation encompassing several countries.

But in 1990, disillusioned by infighting among the Afghan factions, Lashkar decided to pursue its jihad agenda in Indian Kashmir, where a separatist movement was petering out.

"In the early '90s we sent a fact-finding team into Kashmir and then started training Kashmiris in our Afghan camps,'' said Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the supreme commander of Lashkar.

"Though we still have people in Afghanistan, the Taleban asked us to close the camps in 1993 and we shifted to Azad (Free) Kashmir the same year," he said, referring to Pakistani Kashmir.

Abu Anas said training was divided into three stages -- 21 days of small weapons training, wilderness skills and fitness. The boys are then sent home, where they are monitored by party elders to see if they are spiritually and physically fit enough to continue.

Each day of the final three-month training session opens with prayers at 4 a.m. followed by a lecture on the Koran and then intensive military drill.

WEAPONS TRAINING

"The basic training involves weapons from handguns to rocket-propelled grenade launchers," Anas said. "High-level exercises involve sniper and ambush training, getting used to explosives and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-air missiles."

Militants say that if they can survive their first three months in Indian-held Kashmir, they stand a good chance of holding out for up to 18 months, but admit few last that long.

"We lost most of our companions in an ambush the first time we went into Kashmir. That was my first real battle experience," said one militant who returned a few months ago from a year's stay in Indian Kashmir to be an instructor at the camp.

"Now I have been to (Indian) occupied Kashmir three times and have killed so many Indian soldiers that I can't even count them,'' he said proudly.

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