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Pakistan, India Escalate Clash Over Kashmir


NEW DELHI — Pakistani forces shot down at least one Indian jet fighter along the two nations' disputed Himalayan border Thursday, driving tensions between the historic rivals to dangerous new levels.

As Indian jets launched fresh attacks on Islamic guerrillas inside Kashmir, a region claimed by both countries, Pakistani officials said their forces downed two Indian jets over Pakistan and captured a pilot.

Indian officials said a MIG-21 fighter crashed because of mechanical problems and that a MIG-29 was downed by a Pakistani missile. The Indian Cabinet met in emergency session late Thursday, and there was speculation that airstrikes might be ordered against missile batteries inside Pakistan.

Thursday's incident occurred amid fears that the clash might spread beyond the disputed region, where Indian soldiers in recent weeks have been battling about 600 suspected Islamic militants holed up in the snowcapped mountains. Indian officials allege that the guerrillas include Pakistani army soldiers in rebel garb.

In Pakistan, four militant groups announced that they were sending more guerrillas into India to help those under attack. Indian and Pakistani troops--both on high alert--were reported to be on the move across Kashmir. Artillery batteries blasted each other along the 450-mile-long Line of Control that divides the nations in the region. In the Indian border state of Punjab, directly south of Kashmir, the military declared a curfew--which some observers saw as an indication that the fighting might spread.

The Indian airstrikes, which began earlier this week, marked the first time air power has been used in the disputed region since 1971, the most recent Indian-Pakistani war.

The crisis is sparking fears across the region and in the West that the fighting could escalate into a large-scale war--and even a nuclear exchange--and that the Clinton administration is too busy to defuse the standoff.

In 1990, the U.S. dispatched a high-level delegation to the subcontinent after picking up what it regarded as unmistakable signs that each side was preparing to assemble and deploy nuclear weapons. The crisis was defused. This time, the U.S.--deeply involved in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's air war against Yugoslavia--is encouraging India and Pakistan to resolve their differences themselves.

"It is a very dangerous situation," said Michael Krepon, director of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. "There has never been an Indian-Pakistani crisis like this while the U.S. was preoccupied somewhere else."

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947. Two of those have been over Kashmir, a mountainous region that the countries jointly occupy, but which each claims in its entirety. The two countries often shell each other along the disputed border, and Pakistan supports a guerrilla insurgency inside the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where a majority of the population is Muslim, as are most Pakistanis.

Usually the skirmishes are much smaller, but several factors set the current fighting apart: If Indian estimates are to be believed, the size of the guerrilla force is extraordinary by the standards of the Kashmir insurgency. The presence of regular Pakistani troops operating inside India with the guerrillas--another point alleged by Indian officers--would also mark a sharp escalation from previous confrontations. The Indian use of air power to dislodge the intruders also represents a sharp break with the past.

Thursday's clashes centered on the Line of Control, which snakes through some of the highest mountains in the world. Indian officials denied that their jets had crossed over the line, but at one point Thursday, they seemed to suggest that their planes may have made "inadvertent" maneuvers.

"The aircraft are close to the Line of Control," Indian Vice Air Marshall S.K. Malik said. "When you are so close, it's fighter aircraft at very high speed and very high altitude. It could be [one to two miles] from the Line of Control."

"This was a hostile act, a provocative act," said Malik, who appeared visibly shaken by the event. "The other side has escalated. We will take appropriate action."

Pakistani army spokesman Brig. Rashid Quereshi insisted in turn that the planes had crossed "well inside Pakistan territory," and added: "We already had given India a warning."

Despite the day's events, Indian authorities reaffirmed to U.S. officials that their forces would keep to their side of the border. Troop movements did not yet suggest that the conflict would expand, U.S. officials said.

"There is no need for any panic," said Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to India's prime minister. "We do not think that it will escalate into a general war."

Still, Mishra said India was determined to expel what it refers to as invaders. And he insisted that ultimate responsibility for the fighting lay on the other side of the border.

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