India kills 15 'Pakistan-backed' guerrillas as border conflict rumbles on

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India claimed yesterday to have killed up to 15 Pakistan-backed guerrillas during a Himalayan forest ambush after one of the biggest raids into India-controlled Kashmir by militants for months.

According to Indian security officials, 429 people have been killed so far this month in Jammu and Kashmir in a surge of violence that has badly dented efforts by Delhi and Islamabad to ease tension.

Relations between the two adversaries have bounced back from last year's low, when both armies were eyeballing one another angrily across the border amid dire - if exaggerrated - warnings that the two nuclear-armed countries were about to launch their fourth war since 1947.

A bus route across the border recently reopened; negotiations began over restoring air links - a positive sign, even though they failed - and ambassadors from both sides have been restored. But progress has stalled, interrupted by a swell in violence, which often flares before the winter snow blocks the Himalayan passes. Matters were made worse by last month's double bombing in Bombay, and acrimonious sparring last week at the United Nations between India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf.

Reports said that the 15 killings came during a vicious 18-hour gun battle in thick forest in the border area of Gurez, 110 miles north of Srinagar. The Indian army, which has heat-sensitive detection equipment designed to discover infiltrators, claimed to have intercepted a large group of militants who had crossed from the Pakistani side.

The 15 deaths are the worst in a list of violent incidents in the region over the past few days.They came as the backwash caused by the exchanges between the Indian and Pakistani leaders at the United Nations General Assembly was still being felt. General Musharraf told the UN that India was fuelling an arms race that would destabilise the region; Mr Vajpayee retorted by accusing Pakistan of using "terrorism" to try to blackmail India into making concessions.

Yesterday the rancour continued. Pakistan accused Mr Vajpayee of being highly negative about an "offer" from General Musharraf made during his UN speech to help end what the Pakistani leader characterised as the Indian suppression of the "legitimate struggle of the Kashmiri people".