India PM escapes office shelling

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INDIA'S PRIME Minister narrowly escaped death yesterday when Pakistani artillery fire destroyed an office in Kargil, northern Kashmir, where he was about to make a speech. The incident occurred as India and Pakistan warned they were both prepared for war if the conflict over Kashmir worsened.

Atal Behari Vajpayee had gone on a two-day morale-boosting tour of the battlezone in the mountains of northern Kashmir, where India has been waging a ferocious campaign for nearly four weeks to dislodge infiltrators sponsored by Pakistan. As the Prime Minister's helicopter landed in a section of Kargil called Baro, the first artillery shell landed a mile away.

At exactly the time that Mr Vajpayee was scheduled to be making a speech in the office of the divisional commissioner, the office was destroyed. Luckily the venue had been changed at the last minute to the helipad where the Prime Minister landed.

He declared: "We will not rest until the occupied territories are recaptured. We want peace but, if war is imposed on us, the whole country is ready to face any situation."

Mr Vajpayee was also reported as telling Pakistan: "We do not want your territory. You vacate the occupied areas." Mr Vajpayee's description of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as "your territory" is a glaring deviation from the official Indian line, according to which all of Kashmir is legally India's. But India seems to have taken great pains not to violate the "Line of Control" (LoC) that divides the two Kashmirs.

Mr Vajpayee's escape followed one of the frostiest encounters in recent diplomatic history, when the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, flew to Delhi for talks with Jaswant Singh, his Indian counterpart. There was no joint communique, no handshake, barely any eye contact - and "no dialogue", as Mr Singh freely admitted.

The attempted attack on Mr Vajpayee will have been seen here as another attempt by Pakistan to turn the ratchet and provoke India into widening the conflict, drawing in a global community panicked at what could transpire between the two newest nuclear powers.

India's armed forces would be overjoyed if they could take the war to the other side. The reason Pakistan's artillery was able to target Mr Vajpayee so precisely was because the guerrillas on the Kargil hills, overlooking Indian positions on a crucial highway, act as their eyes. If the Indian Air Force was given permission to attack Pakistani artillery and missile bases 10 to 12km beyond the LoC, they could greatly weaken Pakistan's efforts, analysts here believe.

So far, however, despite the mounting Indian dead - probably more than 100 now, with hundreds more wounded - opinion formers in India are exercising remarkable restraint. In times of peace, a rabble- rousing nationalist politician such as Bal Thackeray, who refers to Muslims by a vulgarism that means "circumcised penis", abuses Pakistan whenever he speaks. So far in this war, the silence of Thackeray and others has been eloquent.

Terrified of igniting a magazine of jingo fury that could not be contained, even the chauvinistic politicians are keeping their tongues under control. It is surprising and impressive. But how long can it continue?