Muslim militants kill 21 Hindu pilgrims in Kashmir

At least 21 people, mainly Hindu pilgrims, were killed and 30 others injured in India last night in a shootout between soldiers and Muslim separatist militants.

At least 21 people, mainly Hindu pilgrims, were killed and 30 others injured in India last night in a shootout between soldiers and Muslim separatist militants.

The terrorists fired into a pilgrim camp at a remote town in the disputed northern state of Kashmir and a fierce gun battle ensued as the security forces responded, killing two of the militants.

Eleven of the dead belonged to the many thousands who each year trek to a sacred cave at Amarnath in the Himalayan mountains, where there is a never-melting icicle shaped like a Hindu idol. The caves are sacred to Hindus.

The scene of the attack on the outskirts of Pahalgam lies on the main route to the shrine to Lord Shiva. Authorities imposed a curfew in the valley following the shooting, which was not immediately claimed.

The attack is by far the most serious violence since one of the major Muslim guerrilla outfits last week declared a three-month ceasefire in an effort to find peace in Kashmir which has suffered from more than a decade of separatist violence.

The peace overture by Hizbul Mujihadeen sparked hopes that, under pressure from the US, it might be the first step toward a solution to the intractable problem of the Muslim-dominated state.

But last night's killings in the town some 60 miles south of Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, served to emphasise how fragile the peace hopes are. Just a day earlier seven Indian soldiers were killed by another militant group at Bandipore, part of an escalation of trouble by other separatist organisations showing their distaste for the truce.

Most observers are convinced the attack on the "soft target" of the Hindu pilgrims was an attempt to strangle the peace initiative at birth.

Soldiers who had been deployed to protect the devotees' camp were fired on at about 7pm. The government provides extensive security to the pilgrims in view of threats to them from the separatists, who have been fighting security forces for 11 years.

In response to the shooting the soldiers engaged the militants as darkness fell, and in the crossfire the pilgrims who had little shelter were wounded and killed. The injured were taken to hospitals in Srinagar, almost two hours away by road.

Many of those killed were porters and men hiring their horses to ferry the pilgrims to the site.

The scale and ferocity of the attack matches that at Chittisinghpora, Kashmir, when 35 Sikhs were massacred in cold blood on the first day of President Bill Clinton's recent visit to India.

But last night after the attack, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Dr Farooq Abdullah, emphasised the latest atrocity would not deter people from proceeding along the path to dialogue.

Hizbul Mujahideen's surprising ceasefire declaration was greeted with a storm of condemnation from other militant groups in Kashmir and Pakistan and the group was expelled from the United Jehad Council. But Hizbul, which is estimated to have about 800 of the 2,500 militants operating in Indian-controlled Kashmir, stuck to its guns.

The Indian army responded by halting operations against Hizbul cadres, though there is to be no let-up against other groups.

Officials from the Indian government are preparing to talk with representatives of the group, though the basis for the discussions remains unclear.

Already government suggestions that the framework for dialogue be within the constitution - meaning Kashmir would have to remain Indian territory - have prompted Hizbul threats to end the ceasefire.

Last night, the United Jehad Council rejected any peace talks with India, after a meeting of the 14-group Council in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-controlled part of the disputed region.

The response of the alliance, which wants tripartite peace talks involving India, Pakistan and Kashmiris rather than bilateral talks, came hours after Hizbul appealed to other rebel groups to lay down their weapons and urged Indian security forces to suspend operations in Kashmir.

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