India to proceed with contentious talks despite militant attack in Kashmir that leaves nine dead

 

India's prime minister is to press ahead with contentious talks with his Pakistani counterpart despite a militant attack in Kashmir that left at least nine people dead. India claimed the three gunmen had entered Kashmir from Pakistan.

The militants attacked a police station near to the de facto international border before seizing a van, killing the driver, and then making their way to an army base where they launched an attack that killed three soldiers. Troops battled most of the day to kill the militants.

The attack came as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif are on Sunday due to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Though the talks have been opposed by India's main opposition party, the two leaders were expected to discuss the violence in the disputed Kashmir region.

Even before the attack, Mr Singh had been under pressure from his political opponents not to proceed with the meeting. Prakash Javedakar, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said Mr Singh had failed to explain why he need to meet Mr Sharif.

But Mr Singh, who has consistently supported engagement with Pakistan, indicating he would go ahead with his planned meeting.

“This is one more in a series of provocations and barbaric actions by the enemies of peace,” he said in a statement issued on the way to New York. “Such attacks will not deter us and will not succeed in derailing our efforts to find a resolution to all problems through a process of dialogue.”

Thursday's attack began at around 7am when the three men dressed in military uniforms attacked the Hiranagar police station in Kathua district, about five miles from India's border with Pakistan.

Five policemen were killed before the militants made their way to an nearby army camp in Samba district that housed soldiers from the 16th Light Cavalry armoured unit. A senior officer, identified as Lt Col Bikramjeet Singh, and two soldiers were killed before the militants were cornered and killed.

In Delhi, India's home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde said four militants had crossed the border on Thursday morning, though he offered no evidence. (Army officials later said they believed only three gunmen were involved.)

“As per preliminary information, the four terrorists came from across the border,” he said.

However, in Kashmir, an English-language newspaper, the Kashmir Monitor, said it had received a call by satellite phone from a previously unknown militant group called the Shouhda, or Martyrs' Brigade, which had claimed responsibility. It said the gunmen were from Kashmir, not Pakistan, and said they had killed 15 people.

Meanwhile, India's military claimed it was fighting with militants who had tried to enter India from several other locations along the border. Army spokesman Colonel Brijesh Pandey told the AFP that Indian forces were battling four groups of militants in the mountainous north of the state.

For many years, Pakistan's military armed and trained militants to fight in Kashmir, which has been rocked by separatist violence for the last two decades. It claims it has stopped this policy but says it continues to offer moral support to the Muslim people of Kashmir who Pakistan says face rights abuses by Indian forces.

The relationship between India and Pakistan has always been difficult and the two nuclear-armed neighbours have gone to war on four occasions since 1947.

In the last couple of years the relationship had improved from a low-point in the aftermath of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai by ten Pakistani militants. Many in India were heartened by the election in May of Mr Sharif, who made improving relations with India a central part of his election campaign.

Frequently when leaders of the two countries are due to talk, there is a violent incident, suggesting hardline elements within both countries are opposed to dialogue.

On Thursday, the chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, announced his condolences for those killed in the attack. He said it appeared the militants had crossed from Pakistan within the previous 12-24 hours.

“Given our history, and given the timing and location of these attacks, one thing is very obvious,” Mr Abdullah said in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state. “That the aim of these terrorists is to derail the proposed dialogue between the prime minister of India and the prime minister of Pakistan.”

He added: “These are forces that have always been inimicable to the interests of the people of Jammu and Kashmir...They have always wanted to keep the violence in the Valley alive.”

Mr Abdullah says violence, which has claimed the lives of at least 80,000 people, has fallen drastically from the levels of the mid-1990s. He says the actual number of violent incidents reduces each year.

But following the hanging earlier this year of a Kashmiri man, Afzal Guru, who had been convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on India's parliament, there have been several high-profile incidents.

In March, two armed militants disguised as cricket players attacked a paramilitary camp and killed five troops. The militants were killed in retaliatory fire. Two people were arrested in connection with the attack.

In May, four soldiers were killed in an ambush by suspected militants in the southern Pulwama district.

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