Fresh crisis in Kashmir as massacre death toll reaches 93

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The Independent Online

The Indian government last night pledged to continue peace talks with Kashmir's Muslim separatists, despite the massacre of at least 93 Hindus.

The Indian government last night pledged to continue peace talks with Kashmir's Muslim separatists, despite the massacre of at least 93 Hindus.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said he believed the six separate attacks had been orchestrated by Pakistan-based militant groups who are determined to derail the nascentpeace process after rejecting the offer of talks on Tuesday.

Security forces in Kashmir said they had advance warning of the attacks but were powerless to prevent the massacres which took place at remoteplaces in the mountainous state. Officials also warned of further incidents directed against "soft targets".

Last night, many areas in Indian-administered Kashmir were under strict curfew for fear of a Hindu backlash in retaliation for the highly-coordinated killings.

Yesterday the Islamabad-based leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen - whose three-month ceasefire declaration a week ago alarmed fellow separatists - seemed to waver, saying their truce was merely a "breathing space" not an end to violence.

Throughout yesterday the death toll mounted as word of each successive attack in remote spots across the Muslim-dominated Himalayan state emerged. The tone was set on Tuesday night when 32 people were killed, many of them Hindu pilgrims, as a suicide squad attacked soldiers guarding a makeshift camp at Rajwas, near Pahalgam.

Shortly after midnight yesterday, 19 brick kiln labourers were separated from their families and shot in Mirbazar village, south of Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar.

In the hours that followed four other attacks came in quick succession following a similar pattern. At Achchabal, seven migrant labourers were killed when gunmen burst into their house and in Pogul, Banibaal, and Kupwara villagers were summoned from their homes and shot be heavily-armed guerrillas. Thirty-five people were killed.

No group claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, which shocked an Indian public that has grown used to violence in the state. As many as 70,000 lives have been lost in Kashmir in the past decade.

Yesterday SP Vaid, the Jammu district police chief, said that, based on intelligence gleaned from radio traffic, the security forces believed that the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-i-Toiba may have been involved in the killings.

The militant group was one of the separatist bands which condemned Hizbul Mujahideen's ceasefire and moves to talk with the India government. The first tentative discussions between representatives of the organisation, the largest and most effective separatist group in Kashmir, had been due to begin yesterday.

But yesterday Hizbul Mujahideen's Pakistan-based leader, Syed Salahuddin, appeared to back-track a little when he said his organisation's cessation of violence did not mean an end to the jihad, or holy war.

He said he was under pressure from within his organisation and demanded that the Indian government give categorical assurances over the scope of any discussions.

The hawkish Indian Home Affairs Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, said he felt the latest round of violence was the result of disagreements within theseparatist camp. "I believe the militants, or at least the militant organisations which carried out the attacks, are literally afraid of peace."

Yet Mr Vajpayee was swift to assert that his government would not deviate from its objective of peace talks and blamed neighbouring Pakistan for the violent spasm.

"It's seems that after the Hizbul Mujahideen call for talks, the other militant groups have been instructed to step up attacks on innocent and unarmed people." he told Parliament. "I ask you to join me in telling the terrorists that we will not bow down to their demands. Support me in telling the terrorists that we are determined to pursue the path to peace."

Pakistan's foreign ministry said in a statement that initial reports did not rule out the possibility that Indian forces were behind the attacks.

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler, urgedthe Indian government to start a dialogue about Kashmir or it could lose the chance to bring peace to the region.

In an internet interview with the BBC, he rejected Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement in Tuesday's bloodbath.

President Musharraf said Pakistan did not have a role in Hizbul Mujahideen's ceasefire but said it had created an opportunity to start a dialogue for a peaceful settlement. He said: "It is up to India to take this opportunity to start ... a process of dialogue." the president said, adding that this opportunity should not be lost. "Certainly an opportunity is there and I don't think it is going to last forever."