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Ready for a Fight in Kashmir


PIR PANJAL RANGE, India — To prove a point, fighters from one of the world's most ruthless guerrilla armies emerged from the dense mountain forest and walked right under the noses of Indian soldiers hunkered down in hillside bunkers.

The 15 Jaish-e-Mohammed militants chose a farmhouse next to a site the Indian army often uses for ambushes as the meeting place for a rare interview with a foreign journalist, as if daring the security forces to come out and fight.

"You can see for yourself," Alim Khan said with a smile, as his men set up a defensive perimeter around the house Tuesday night. "The Indian army is terrified."

Khan, 24, is deputy divisional commander of the Jaish-e-Mohammed in the Pir Panjal, a mountain range that forms the western edge of the Himalayas, with steep canyon walls and peaks that rise to over 19,000 feet.

It is a busy crossroads for separatist rebels fighting Indian rule in the region, and villagers say at least eight guerrilla forces are active in the area, in spite of several hundred thousand police and soldiers.

The disputed Kashmir region is divided between India and Pakistan. Separatists in India's Jammu and Kashmir state are seeking independence or unity with Pakistan, where the vast majority of citizens share their Muslim faith.

U.S.-led efforts to get Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to prevent the separatists from crossing into Indian-held territory, and to close down the guerrillas' training camps in Pakistani-controlled areas, will not stop Jaish-e-Mohammed, Khan said.

"As far as the people of Jammu and Kashmir are concerned, we have never taken up arms for Pakistan, nor are we going to lay them down for Pakistan," Khan said, shifting a Kalashnikov assault rifle in his lap. "We have taken up the gun for our own cause.

"We are not terrorists," Khan insisted. "Go to any street of any village, even any child will tell you how the [Indian] security forces are committing atrocities against us. Women are being harassed and physically and sexually assaulted."

Speaking with a bluster that suggested his group has not been cowed by either Pakistani or Indian forces, Khan described what he said was a recent encounter with Indian soldiers as more proof that his men are feared in the mountains, where they say they move freely after sunset.

"Just a few days ago, the army crossed my path twice, and there were only two of us," Khan said. "But the soldiers were so terrified that they didn't fire at us.

"The army doesn't want to fight here," he asserted, "but they are forced to by the politicians."

Jaish-e-Mohammed's cadres are fierce fighters who say they are waging jihad, or holy struggle, to free Jammu and Kashmir state from Indian rule. It is a cause for which they say they are eager to die. Martyrdom in this blood-stained Shangri-La of soaring mountains and terraced green rice fields, they believe, will send them straight to paradise.

"This is the law of the world: The sufferer who gets killed while defending or demanding his rights is called a martyr," Khan said. "And the whole world calls him a hero. So if we get killed fighting for our cause, we will be martyrs as well."

To India's government, Jaish-e-Mohammed is a band of terrorists supported by Pakistan in a proxy war that New Delhi says Musharraf's government is still waging, despite his promises to stop.

The name Jaish-e-Mohammed sends tremors through the Indian security forces like that of few other enemies. The group, which relies heavily on Pakistani and other foreign fighters, is notorious for suicide attacks.

The group's leaders include Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is on trial in a Pakistani court in the kidnapping and murder of American reporter Daniel Pearl.

Indian authorities say Jaish-e-Mohammed militants were involved in the Dec. 13 attack on parliament in New Delhi, in which nine victims and the five attackers died.

Musharraf banned the group and four other organizations in January, during an earlier round of international demands to avert a war between India and Pakistan.

Khan agreed to an interview on condition that the exact location not be revealed. The meeting was delayed by a day after guerrillas and Indian troops fought nearby for at least two hours late Monday, with mortars and assault rifles.

Guides who brought the reporter into the mountains were told to wait for instructions before climbing to one of three possible rendezvous points.

But Khan quickly got word of the journalist's arrival through a network of village informants and appeared at the farmhouse door with a lieutenant, Ajmer ul Islam, 24, an angry man who appeared suspicious. He wore a round, flat-topped pakol hat popular among Afghans and with tribesmen in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

At least 12 guerrillas encircled the house, ready for an attack by some of the 200 Indian soldiers based at a hillside camp only a few hundred yards away.

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