Kashmir rebels kill 30 in army shoot-out

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The Independent Online

Passengers on the bus from the Himalayan hill station of Kulu assumed that the three men in combat fatigues who boarded six miles from the Pakistan border were Indian soldiers. When the bus stopped outside an army base and the men ordered the passengers to stand, they assumed it was a routine search. But then the men opened fire, killing seven.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades, they then blasted their way into the camp, six miles south of the city of Jammu in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and headed for the soldiers' residential quarters. By the time soldiers shot them dead, at least 30 people had been killed including several women and 10 children. Another 48 were injured.

Yesterday's terrorist attack was the worst in Kashmir since last September, and coincided with a visit to India by Christina Rocca, an American assistant secretary of state who is in the region on a mission to reduce tensions that have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war since a suicide attack on the Indian parliament last December.

Ms Rocca said her government "unequivocally condemned the attack. It is just this type of barbarism that the war on terrorism is determined to stop," she told a press conference in Delhi.

Indian government sour-ces were quick to blame the attack on Pakistan-based militant groups. In particular they pointed the finger at Lashkar-e-Tayyibe, one of the biggest groups banned by Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's President, under pressure from the United States. The group is believed since the ban merely to have decamped from its premises near Lahore in Pakistan to Pakistan- administered Kashmir, and changed its name.

Pakistani officials condemned the attack but poured cold water on the Indian explanation. "Every time there is a high-profile visit to India or Pakistan there is some episode or other which takes place," commented Maj-Gen Rashid Qureshi, General Musharraf's spokesman. "It leads one to believe that these coincidences happen whenever India wants them to."

On the eve of the visit of the former American president Bill Clinton to India in February 2000, unknown assailants massacred 35 Sikh men in the Kashmiri village of Chittisinghpura. India blamed Islamic militants but there were widespread suspicions that the attack was contrived by India to draw Mr Clinton's attention to the Kashmir carnage.

Yesterday's attack, however, seemed in the mould of many other so-called fidayeen suicide attacks by Lashkar-e-Tayyiba in the past two and a half years. Only the seemingly deliberate slaughter of women and children gave the attack a repugnant new twist.

A senior Indian defence analyst, Krishnaswami Subramaniam, told The Independent: "The Jihadi terrorist groups are trying to tell the United States, Pakistan and India that they are not going to be controlled by any of these governments ... They are intensifying their activities as the US is trying to put pressure on them in Pakistan. Whether Pervez Musharraf has enough clout to control them is impossible to say."

The timing of the attack seemed calculated equally to infuriate India and to heap embarrassment on Pakistan's military ruler. Committed to supporting the West's "war on terrorism", General Musharraf has had to countenance American troops operating inside Pakistan, hunting down the remnants of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, a politically challenging decision in a volatile Islamic republic. .

Indian and Pakistani forces remain fully mobilised for war on their long common border, as they have been since December, and on Monday the American under-secretary of defence, Douglas Feith, said in Washington: "There is a risk of war. You're talking about two countries with nuclear weapons , so the risks are very large. We are focused on defusing those tensions."

India is under fierce domestic pressure to respond to attacks such as yesterday's. Krishnaswami Subramaniam warned: "With troops fully committed, it will be extremely difficult for the government not to take action."