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Kashmir fighting leaves 25 dead, India says

India says its forces engaged the militants after learning the fighters were crossing into its territory, but Lashkar-e-Taiba says it ambushed the troops and puts the death toll at 35.

March 26, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — In the first major battle of the spring, at least 25 people have been killed in recent days in the disputed Kashmir region in fighting between the Indian military and the Pakistan-based militant group blamed for last year's attack in Mumbai, India.

The Indian army said Wednesday that it had killed 17 militants linked to Lashkar-e- Taiba, which was formed in the 1990s to fight Indian control over a portion of Kashmir. The group is officially banned in Pakistan but has been linked to that nation's powerful intelligence service.

"They are all likely to be foreign," Indian army spokesman Lt. Col. J.S. Brar said, adding that an Indian major and seven special forces soldiers also were killed in the fighting.

Brar said the army recovered 23 assault rifles, six grenade launchers, global positioning equipment, 10 radio sets, shoes that appeared to have been made in Iran and clothing with markings from Pakistan.

Brig. Gurmit Singh said at a news conference that army intelligence suggested that as many as 400 militants were massed in Pakistani-controlled territory, waiting to infiltrate the Indian-held portion of Kashmir.

Lashkar has been widely blamed for the November attack on Mumbai, which killed at least 170 people. But most analysts say the Kashmir operation looks more like routine fighting of the sort seen in the territory since the early 1990s.

The looks and language of many militants are distinct enough that they would stand out in other parts of India, said Sheik Shaukat Hussain, a professor at Kashmir University. "Mostly this fighting has been localized," he said.

Brar said the army received intelligence late last week that the fighters were coming across, and Indian forces engaged them.

But Lashkar spokesman Abdullah Gaznavi told Rising Kashmir, a newspaper the group often uses to publicize statements, that its forces ambushed the Indian military, killing 25 soldiers while losing 10 of their own.

"India should understand that the freedom struggle in Kashmir is not over," the newspaper quoted him as saying after it received a call Tuesday night. "It is active with full force."

The fighting occurred in the dense Shamsbari forest near the cease-fire line between the Indian- and Pakistani-held portions of Kashmir, an area still covered by as much as 15 feet of snow.

"With two opponents and no one to confirm, truth becomes a casualty," said Wasim Khalid, a reporter with Rising Kashmir, referring to the divergent accounts. "The area where this happened has only forest, no dwellings, so God only knows the truth."

Fighting tends to increase in March and April as the snow melts in the disputed high mountainous area, which has been the object of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan.

Last year was relatively peaceful, and New Delhi made much of the 60% turnout in Kashmir state elections late in the year, which it interpreted as support for Indian rule. But January saw far more casualties than January 2008. And the latest fighting has brought the highest death toll for an encounter in many months.

Hussain said the army's contention that the militants had just crossed over might be open to question given that the deep snow made such a move extremely difficult. The fighters may have come from the Indian side or infiltrated before winter and waited to attack, he said.

Brar denied Lashkar's claim that militants ambushed the army or that the attack came from forces on the Indian-held side.

"They came across; we had our electronic intelligence and pinpointed them on both sides of the border," he said. Lashkar's account was "totally wrong; it's all hogwash."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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