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India Plans War Games Near Pakistan

Asia: Exercises are sure to ratchet up tensions between the two nations. Their nuclear standoff remains unresolved.

October 13, 1998|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — India's army said Monday that it is planning military exercises on the border with Pakistan, a move certain to strain relations only months after the two countries plunged into a still-unresolved nuclear crisis.

A spokesman said the army will conduct maneuvers with tanks and artillery next month on the western plains of Punjab and Rajasthan--the site of previous confrontations between the Indian and Pakistani armies.

The announcement came on the eve of the resumption of high-level talks between India and Pakistan aimed at easing tensions between the two rivals.

The army spokesman said the exercises were scheduled to take advantage of a brief spell between the harvesting and planting of crops. He declined to say how many troops will take part in the exercises or whether they will be using live ammunition. Unconfirmed reports said that the number of Indian troops may reach 100,000 and that the exercise could involve land, sea and air operations over a two-week period.

"This is a routine exercise," said K. C. Singh, a spokesman for the Indian Foreign Ministry.

The two countries have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. Twice more in the last 11 years, troop buildups along the border have taken the two countries to the brink of major conflict.

In May, the rivalry leaped to a more dangerous plane when the two countries tested nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan share a 450-mile disputed border, along which they exchange artillery and machine-gun fire almost every day.

At the heart of their dispute is Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both. Pakistan suppports an insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir, and the Indians are conducting a fierce counterinsurgency campaign.

On Monday, for instance, guerrillas fighting Indian rule in Kashmir killed eight Indian troops, five of them in a land-mine blast.

Indian officials said they notified Pakistan of their plans several days ago. But Pakistani officials said late Monday that they were still verifying the report.

Some Indian observers questioned the timing of the war games, saying they appeared deliberately calculated to intimidate Pakistan.

"This is the exact location where India would launch an invasion of Pakistan," said P. R. Chari, an author and military analyst. "These exercises can only lead to an escalation on both sides of the border."

The announcement of the Indian war games came as Western diplomats are pressuring India and Pakistan to search for ways to control the two nations' competition.

The economies of both are struggling beneath the burden of U.S. sanctions imposed after their nuclear tests in May. As a condition for lifting the sanctions, the United States insists that the countries sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would oblige them to refrain from any more atomic tests.

Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan have said they are not opposed to signing the test ban treaty, but--each under pressure at home to strike a tough pose for his rival--they have not done so.

For all the diplomatic efforts to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table, the last five months have brought little improvement in their relationship. In July, as Vajpayee and Sharif met face to face at a summit in Sri Lanka, the armies of India and Pakistan were shelling each other ferociously along the disputed border in Kashmir.

The talks collapsed.

The Indian military maneuvers announced Monday seem especially troubling in light of what has happened when troops have massed on the border.

Many experts say the closest India and Pakistan have come to all-out war in recent years was in 1987, when the Indian army staged a massive military exercise--250,000 troops with live ammunition--along the border with Pakistan.

Pakistani leaders, caught off guard, rushed in 50,000 troops. The two sides backed down after Western leaders intervened.

"The situation almost got out of control," Chari said.

Another confrontation occurred in 1990, after chaos erupted in Kashmir. When the Indian army sent troops to the border, the Pakistanis responded by mobilizing.

U.S. intelligence then picked up what were believed to be unmistakable signals that each side was preparing to assemble and use nuclear weapons.

President Bush dispatched Deputy National Security Advisor Robert M. Gates to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and to New Delhi to pull the nations back from the brink. Gates succeeded, in part by showing leaders of the two countries estimates of how a large-scale war would leave their already impoverished nations utterly destitute.

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