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Pakistan Announces Troop Pullback

Responding in kind to India's move, Musharraf orders the withdrawal of forces from the nations' border but not from the Kashmir cease-fire line.

October 18, 2002|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Following India's step back from the brink, Pakistan announced Thursday that it will begin withdrawing several hundred thousand troops from front-line positions on the two nations' border.

But even as the months-long military standoff eased, Indian security forces claimed that they killed five suspected guerrillas slipping into the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, a bloody reminder that the 55-year dispute over that region is far from over.

Pakistan's announcement that it will withdraw its troops to "peacetime locations" followed India's statement Wednesday that it would start a phased pullback of forces from the border. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met with top commanders and ordered the withdrawal to begin Monday, a military source said.

Both countries said they will keep their troops dug in along the Line of Control, the 460-mile-long cease-fire line in disputed Kashmir drawn at the end of their 1971 war. The line is still the scene of frequent, and often deadly, clashes between Indian forces and separatist guerrillas in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan insisted that India needs to take the next step and start pulling its forces out of the roughly two-thirds of Kashmir that it controls.

"India has the largest concentration of forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir -- over 700,000 security forces," Khan said. "For the sake of the peaceful resolution of the dispute, those forces should also be withdrawn.

"After all, the people of Kashmir are also being affected by that," Khan added. "And there have been so many casualties because of that."

In New Delhi, India's Foreign Ministry repeated Thursday that the government wants an end to what it calls cross-border terrorism before Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will sit down for talks with Musharraf.

The Pakistani leader has repeatedly denied giving anything more than moral and political support to what Pakistanis see as freedom fighters battling mostly Hindu India's rule in the mainly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir.

But when Kashmiris in the Indian-controlled portion began voting for a new state government last month, U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill said Washington believed that incursions from Pakistani-held territory were on the increase again after a lull of several months.

Five guerrillas from the little-known Tehrik-e-Jelali, believed to be an offshoot of Islamic militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, were gunned down around noon Thursday crossing from Pakistani-held territory through the town of Patridak, according to Lt. Col. S.P.K. Singh of the Indian army.

"Pakistani troops assisted them with mortar fire while they were trying to infiltrate," Singh said by phone from the Kashmiri city of Udhampur. "Fifty rounds of 82-millimeter mortar, all high explosives, were fired by the Pakistanis."

He said five rifles were recovered from the militants.

Indian security forces also killed three fighters from the militant group Hezb-ul-Moujahedeen on Thursday morning in the Baramulla district of the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, Singh said. The fighters were armed with two AK-47 assault rifles, a pistol, three grenades and a radio set, he said.

International efforts to start formal talks over Kashmir's future may be complicated by the new political power that Islamic parties gained in Pakistan after a strong showing in last week's general elections.

No single party won an outright majority in the National Assembly. But a loose alliance of conservative Islamic parties, called the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, or United Council of Action, came in third and is trying to negotiate a role in government.

Although the alliance's leaders include pragmatists who say they aren't a threat to Musharraf's foreign policy, the mullahs are hard-liners on the issue of Kashmir. They, and millions more Pakistanis, consider the fight over the region to be a jihad, or holy struggle.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the Islamic alliance's nominee for prime minister, had guarded praise for Musharraf's pullback order.

Though Rehman called the withdrawal "a bit premature," he added: "The government has played a wise move by throwing the ball back to India's court, which will now be under international pressure to respond to Pakistan's unilateral withdrawal of forces."

As tensions between Pakistan and India mounted early this year, Musharraf ordered his security forces to shut down offices, fund-raising and training camps for most of the Pakistani-based militant groups fighting in Jammu and Kashmir.

But at least one, Hezb-ul-Moujahedeen, still has an office in the city of Peshawar, in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, and in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir. Other groups continue to recruit fighters and raise money less openly.

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