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Kashmir fighting flares as India prepares for poll: New Delhi is changing tactics in its war against separatists

AN INDIAN offensive against Muslim separatists in Kashmir has caused an upsurge in bloodshed since the start of July, with up to 50 deaths in a single day.

Fighting normally intensifies in the Himalayan territory during the summer months, when melting snows allow militants to cross into the Kashmir Valley from the Pakistani side of the divided territory. This year, however, the Indian authorities have launched their biggest operation against guerrillas since the Muslim uprising began in early 1990 - on Sunday at least 16 alleged infiltrators were killed. The governor of Kashmir, K V Krishna Rao, has spoken of controlling the insurgency within three or four months, paving the way for elections later this year.

Mr Rao was appointed in March after the previous governor, Girish Saxena, resigned in protest at what he saw as New Delhi's more conciliatory approach. The authorities say other hardline officials are being replaced, while the army presence in Kashmir is being stepped up to reduce the role of paramilitaries, who are accused of the worst brutality.

According to military spokesmen, new tactics are being adopted to target armed insurgents and reduce civilian casualties. 'It may be that the higher death toll reflects a greater success rate against the militants rather than an increase in phoney 'encounters', in which the victims are civilians, but it will be some time before this becomes clear,' said a Western diplomat. 'Winning back hearts and minds in the Kashmir Valley will be a lengthy process.'

New Delhi has been encouraged by its success in Punjab, where election turn-outs have risen as security forces managed to crush Sikh separatism. The authorities clearly believe the same tactics can be applied in Kashmir, but anti-government feeling is far higher in India's only Muslim-majority state than in Punjab, where separatism never enjoyed majority support. Also unlike Punjab, Kashmir has been contested between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947, and has caused two of their three wars.

At least 12,000 people have been killed in the Kashmir Valley since Muslim discontent erupted into armed conflict in early 1990, and New Delhi began pouring in up to 500,000 troops and paramilitaries. Both the security forces and the militants have been accused of gross abuses by human rights groups.

But international pressure to end indiscriminate killing and prevent another war between India and Pakistan, in which nuclear weapons might be used, could be having an effect. Pakistan is said to have scaled down assistance to the militants after US threats to declare it a terrorist state. India, while insisting that Kashmir is an internal matter, is seeking to prove its policy is not simply repression.

Any attempt to hold an election in the Kashmir Valley could simply inflame the situation. Many Kashmiris allege that New Delhi has rigged every poll since 1947, with one exception, and the only fairly-elected government did not last long.

Advocates of the new Indian strategy believe, however, that an election will be an important milestone. They point out that last year's state assembly poll in Punjab drew only 15 per cent of voters, while the turnout for recent rural council elections was over 80 per cent.