India and Pakistan edge towards full-blown war

WITH THE leaders of India continuing to swap curt messages while the conflict in Kashmir rages on, the subcontinent could soon find itself waking up to a full-blown war.

Yesterday the Indian Army announced its first important successes of the month-long campaign in Kargil: the clearing of Tololing Peak, overlooking the vital Srinagar-Leh highway. Victory came at 4am on Sunday, after a 10-hour battle in which some 12,000 high-explosive shells were fired at the enemy bunkers.

Two Indian officers and seven men were reported killed in the assault, while the Indians claim to have removed the bodies of 15 guerrillas in capturing the 15,000ft-high peak.

Yet this first intimation of Indian success was more than balanced by news from other parts of the Line of Control (LoC), separating Indian and Pakistani forces in the disputed Himalayan region. India's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said in the city of Jammu last night at the end of his two-day tour of the battlezone that Pakistan was now shelling Indian positions across the LoC from several other sectors.

As tensions rise, regular Indian troops have bolstered the paramilitary Border Security Force along the immensely long border with Pakistan that divides the flat, fertile plains of Punjab. Civilian buildings fronting the border have been taken over by soldiers, and surveillance helicopters drone overhead.

"We are well prepared, and have created so many artificial obstacles that it will be difficult for the enemy to puncture or negotiate them," said Rao Brijender Singh, officer in charge of the Border Security Force.

But the locals do not believe it. The residents of several villages along this front have fled, remembering the destruction they suffered in the war of 1971.

When the Punjab chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, arrived to exhort the villagers to stay, only a handful of men remained to hear him out. He told them: "A full-scale Indo- Pakistan war is not possible at this stage." Just a few kilometres from the point where the Prime Minister's bus drove with such hopeful symbolism across the border a mere four months ago, the people preferred to follow their instincts.

Meanwhile, in the war zone itself, high in the Himalayas, more than 20,000 refugees from Dras and Batalik were said yesterday to have taken shelter in the city of Leh, capital of the Ladakh region.

Although soldiers are dying and being maimed in large numbers in the conflict - more than 100 Indian soldiers have died and more than 2,000 wounded - it is the armed forces on both sides that are benefiting from the war.

The Indian armed forces are now being provided with everything they demand, after years of penny-pinching.

On the Pakistan side, too, it is claimed that the army is enjoying a wave of popularity, with one Indian commentator claiming that the Pakistani army is gearing up to remove the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and put him on trial for corruption, just as Nawaz himself did to his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto.

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