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Uneasy Calm on a Stretch of Kashmir Front

June 13, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHAKOTHI, Pakistan — For all the talk of easing tensions between India and Pakistan, the reality of relations between the subcontinent's large and quarrelsome neighbors lies here in the mountains of Kashmir.

It isn't pretty.

Strung out along either side of a 450-mile cease-fire line drawn after a 1971 war, soldiers from two of the world's largest armies remain on high alert. At some points in the rugged Chakothi sector, where 13,000-foot peaks plunge almost vertically into valleys thousands of feet below, less than 100 yards separate Indian and Pakistani positions.

Senior Pakistani military officers said this week that they had detected no hint of relaxation along the front.

"It's every bit as volatile as it was two or three weeks ago," said Brig. Iftikhar Ali Khan, who commands Pakistani forces along a 30-mile stretch of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir.

So far, he said Tuesday, there has been no discernible decline in the sporadic shelling or exchanges of small-arms fire across the line that have become part of the rhythm of life since the two armies mobilized this year.

Chakothi itself last came under intense fire May 18. Khan said Indian forces sent an estimated 600 to 800 rounds of artillery crashing into and around the town that day. It was one of the most intense barrages since the crisis began about six months ago. Several of those rounds appeared to have landed in an army administrative area, while at least two went through the roof of the local secondary school a few hundred yards away.

Mumtaz Ali, a janitor at the school, said that no one was killed--though school was in session at the time--because students had been evacuated to nearby underground shelters.

Nazeen Bibi, 28, wasn't so lucky.

Family members said she was killed by one of the barrage's first rounds when she was caught in the open as she walked across a field with her 1-year-old daughter.

In quieter times, the Indian and Pakistani area commanders would meet briefly about once a month on a bridge over the Jhelum River, at the Line of Control. They would check a hotline connecting military headquarters of the two countries to make sure that it was working. Those checks stopped in December, and there has been no contact since.

This week, an uneasy calm prevailed in the Chakothi sector. From the horizontal slit of a Pakistani observation post, Indian army positions on mountain slopes several hundred yards ahead were clearly visible but quiet.

As a Pakistani army patrol moved cautiously down a dirt track in the direction of the border, the only sounds audible were those of nature: chirping birds, occasional thunder from rain clouds gathered above jutting peaks and the rush of the Jhelum River in full flow as it carried the late spring Himalayan snowmelt through the narrow valley floor below.

Frequent rains have enabled a generous layer of ferns and other undergrowth to thrive among the majestic pines and spindly hardwood trees despite the altitude, making it possible for small groups to operate undetected, especially at night. India's claims that Pakistan trains and then helps Islamic militants infiltrate the line to conduct armed attacks in Indian-controlled areas have been a major factor in the crisis.

Khan, however, insisted that no such groups have gone through his sector.

"No one is allowed to cross the line," he said. "No one."

On Tuesday, along the narrow twisting road leading west from Chakothi, about a dozen buses carted protesters to a rally in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir. They were going to demonstrate against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's recent promise to halt the infiltration by militants.

"We will continue to cross the Line of Control as the struggle for Kashmir's freedom continues," pledged Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Pakistan's largest religious-based political party, Jamaat-i-Islami. "We will not allow a weak ruler to sell out on Kashmir."

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