Border firing raises Kashmir tension

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Heavy firing raged along the disputed border between India and Pakistan in the Himalayan region of Kashmir yesterday, with both sides exchanging mortar and machine-gun fire for the seventh day.

At least 22 people were killed inside Pakistan when a rocket crashed into a mosque during Friday prayers, in what diplomats in Islamabad and New Delhi are calling a dangerous escalation of hostilities. President Farooq Leghari said Pakistan would respond to the rocket attack. India on Saturday successfully tested Super Prithvi, a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. All of Pakistan's cities fall within the range of Indian missiles. Both countries are thought to have nuclear arms.

Indian officials said Pakistani troops yesterday opened fire on seven border outposts, injuring seven civilians. India claims that that fighting erupted when Pakistani troops tried to provide covering fire to enable Kashmiri separatist guerrillas to slip across the snowy mountain border. A defence spokesman said, "The firing by the Pakistanis may have been to divert attention to push in more militants."

Militants who claim to represent the Muslim majority in Kashmir are waging a six-year uprising against Indian forces. India accuses Pakistan of aiding the Kashmiri factions.

Meanwhile, India claims to have restored ties with militant kidnappers holding four Westerners - the Britons Paul Wells, 23, from Nottingham and Keith Mangan, 33, from Tooting, and an American and a German. Talks were broken off by the Al-Faran captors in November when India refused to exchange jailed Kashmiri militants for the tourists.

The Independent has learnt that the militant kidnappers have moved the hostages. Police sources claim that the four were taken on a two-day march over the mountains into the more temperate Doda district, not far from the main Jammu-Srinagar highway.

In Srinagar, a police official said: "The heavy snowfall and the biting cold must have forced the militants to enter Doda. Earlier, the American tourist was suffering from severe frostbite, and we feel that must have also forced Al-Faran to shift them."

All four captives were sighted by villagers several days ago in Kishtwar, a forest-covered region which is a stronghold for Kashmir separatists. "They were exhausted but trying to keep pace with their captors," said one police official.

The Al-Faran group is said to be extremist in its Islamic views, and many of the kidnappers are Afghan warriors who consider the Kashmir Muslims' battle against the primarily Hindu Indian security forces to be nothing less than a jihad, (holy war). The westerners, now in their seventh month of captivity, had little idea of this vicious conflict when they set out trekking last summer in Kashmir. Their accompanying wives and girlfriends were freed.

Indian authorities, with British, US and German diplomats in Srinagar, pin their hopes on new mediation being carried out by a respected Kashmiri militant leader, Yassin Malik, from the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front. He has backing from the major militant organisation, the All-Party Hurriyet Conference, which recently established links with a key Al-Faran commander.