Atrocity heightens tension in Kashmir

US-British drive to avert conflict between India and Pakistan is set back after horrific attack by Islamist militants
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An outburst of violence in Kashmir in which nine more people were killed yesterday set back intensifying efforts by London and Washington to head off all-out conflict between India and Pakistan.

An outburst of violence in Kashmir in which nine more people were killed yesterday set back intensifying efforts by London and Washington to head off all-out conflict between India and Pakistan.

Shrugging off allegations of double standards, the United States and Britain have begun a fresh diplomatic drive in the region to avert a third crisis at a time when they they are running into trouble in Iraq and face a show-down with North Korea.

But yesterday these moves were overshadowed by more deaths and a shocking individual atrocity in which police in Indian-administrated Jammu and Kashmir said Islamist militants cut off the noses of five villagers suspected of collaborating with the Indian army.

Officials in Kashmir said suspected Islamist militants killed a 50-year-old villager and his son in a pre-dawn attack on a village. Indian forces killed a senior member of the Hizb-ul-Mujahedin, a leading anti-India guerrilla group. Elsewhere six militants were reported killed in battles.

The fresh wave of bloodshed came as India was seething with fury over last weekend's slaughter by Islamist militants of 24 Kashmiri Hindus at the village of Nadi Marg, more than half of them women and children.

That attack raised the temperature between India and Pakistan sharply, prompting the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to take the unusual step of issuing a joint statement in an effort to cool the region down.

The Powell-Straw move reflects the degree of concern that Indian and Pakistan are heading for another standoff, after weeks of regular bloodshed in Kashmir, missile tests, angry rhetoric, cross-border artillery duels and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

Last year, both sides mobilised their armies, prompting Washington to conclude that there was a risk – albeit remote – of nuclear war. Washington and London are acutely concerned about a repetition of these events, particularly now.

One Foreign Office source said: "We must be careful not to talk this up, but this sort of thing is always dangerous. We must keep a very, very close watch on this – especially when a heinous terror attack puts Delhi under domestic pressure to react."

This week, Christina Rocca, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, laid out these concerns in a veiled warning to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to not neglect the region. She said incidents such as the massacre of the 24 Hindus threatened to provoke another crisis; the US must remain "actively and effectively engaged".

The Powell-Straw statement – which came as President Bush and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, were holding their council of war at Camp David – strongly condemned the "massacre" at Nadi Marg. It called on Pakistan to "fulfil its commitments" to stop infiltration by Islamist anti-India militants across the Line of Control – the ceasefire line that divides Kashmir – and to do its utmost to discourage any acts of violence by militants. It said the Kashmir dispute can only be resolved through "peaceful means and engagement".

But the US and Britain's authority in calling for India-Pakistan dialogue over Kashmir has been badly dented by their invasion of Iraq.

Delhi accuses Pakistan of arming and equipping Islamist militants and says it is an epicentre of "terrorism", a charge that Islamabad strenuously denies. Washington's call for India to enter talks at the same time as American armed forces are descending on Baghdad in the name of a "war on terror" is seen by Delhi as a breathtaking example of double standards.

"It is pretty hard to tell India not to use military force when we are doing exactly the opposite ourselves," conceded one Western source.

India's Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha, said the US call for Delhi to enter talks with Pakistan, was as "gratuitous and misplaced" as India urging Washington to open talks with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq war has also made life more difficult for Pakistan's President, General Pervez Musharraf, in his efforts to balance his post-11 September "war-on-terror" alliance with Washington with strongly anti-US public opinion.

* Two US special forces soldiers were killed yesterday and another wounded in an ambush in southern Afghanistan, the US military said.

A statement from the headquarters of the US forces in Afghanistan said the soldiers were on a reconnaissance patrol in Helmand province when they were attacked.