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Warnings, Shells Fly Over Tense Border

May 24, 1998|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the nation Saturday that he would retaliate against any Indian aggression, capping two weeks of increasingly acrimonious relations between the two countries.

At his first news conference since India tested five nuclear devices earlier this month, Sharif tried to respond to a series of warnings by Indian officials over contested territory in the mountainous region of Kashmir.

"Statements emanating from Indian leaders virtually amount to nuclear blackmail," Sharif said in a statement broadcast around the country. "Any misadventure will be met with a resolute response."

Sharif made his remarks as shelling between the two nations' armies escalated along their disputed northern border. The artillery duels grew so intense Saturday night that the shell bursts could be seen and heard from this city, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, 35 miles from the Indian frontier.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir in the last 50 years, and a guerrilla insurgency in the Indian-controlled portion of the region has killed more than 20,000 people in the last decade. The two sides often exchange artillery fire, but people on both sides of the border are concerned that such skirmishes could now spark a war between nuclear-armed states.

Sharif, speaking in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, made his speech after a series of pointed remarks by Indian officials last week. Indian Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani warned Pakistan to cease what he characterized as a Pakistani subversion campaign in Indian Kashmir.

Advani spoke ominously of Pakistan's need to reevaluate its relationship with India in light of the latter's nuclear tests.

"Islamabad should realize the change in the geostrategic situation in the region and the world and roll back its anti-India policy," Advani said Monday. "India's bold and decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem.

"It signifies . . . India's firm resolve to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan's hostile designs and activities in Kashmir," he said.

Advani's remarks followed statements earlier this year by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee promising an Indian takeover of Pakistani Kashmir.

The Indian government provoked global condemnation when it tested five nuclear devices, including a hydrogen bomb, at a desert area earlier this month. India said it needed the tests to ensure its security in a dangerous region of the world.

The United States and Japan have each imposed limited economic sanctions on India.

Sharif is under intense pressure in Pakistan to test a nuclear weapon, but he is being urged by leaders across the globe not to do so.

In his message, Sharif appeared to be leaving the nuclear option open.

"The balance of power in the region has been violently tilted. Under these circumstances, our undivided focus must be on the preservation of our national security interests," he said. "Whatever decision will eventually be taken will be in our supreme national interest."

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Amitabh Sharma of The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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