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Kashmir Border Duels, Rhetoric Heat Up

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Indian sharpshooters sit on the hill just over the border, so close to this Pakistani village that they can shoot anything they like.

“Men, women, cows, even the chickens they kill,” said Mohammad Hussain, 50, a wheat farmer. “They can fire any time. We always have to be alert.”

For the people of this town, and thousands of others living along the 300-mile stretch of border between India and Pakistan curving across the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, the crisis created by India’s five nuclear tests this month is cutting especially close to home. Cross-border artillery duels have grown ferocious, lighting up the night sky from Mirpur to Muzaffarabad.

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Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee hinted this week that he would carry the war against Kashmiri separatists into Pakistan. Gen. Jahangir Karamat, Pakistan’s army chief, told his troops to prepare for an Indian attack.

In Bandala Seri, a dusty hamlet 500 yards from what is known on both sides as the “Line of Control,” villagers are bracing for another round in a 50-year war that they have always been the first to feel.

“We’ve all been shot at. We all live in fear,” said Rizwan Mahmood, 21. “We know that war could come any time.”

Both Nations Claimed Region as British Left

Bandala Seri lies in the southern tip of the Pakistani-occupied part of Kashmir, the fought-over region at the heart of India and Pakistan’s abysmal relations. Starting in the Himalayan foothills and arcing north into the world’s highest mountains, Kashmir has been claimed by both India and Pakistan since the two countries rose from the British Empire 51 years ago.

Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation, rejects the occupation of Indian Kashmir, largely because a majority of Kashmiris on both sides of the border adhere to Islam. In India as a whole, the majority is Hindu.

The Indians claim Pakistan’s portion as well, arguing that the region has been rightfully theirs since independence. In his election campaign earlier this year, Vajpayee promised a crowd at a campaign rally in Bombay that India would “take back” Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.

Today, after three wars and innumerable skirmishes, the armies of India and Pakistan face off along a cease-fire line that has marked their stalemate for half a century.

In some areas, like those east of Muzaffarabad--the capital of Pakistani Kashmir--troops on each side eye each other from their bunkers and shell each other at night. Atop the 20,000-foot Siachen Glacier--the world’s highest battlefield--more soldiers die of the cold than in fighting.

In Indian-occupied Kashmir, a decade-old insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives. India accuses Pakistan of arming the guerrillas--a claim the Pakistani government denies--and it is for this that Vajpayee hinted he might strike across the border.

Villagers Bitter, Sense That War Is Inevitable

India’s atomic tests this month have raised anew the specter of war and, this time perhaps, one that could degenerate into a nuclear exchange.

In Bandala Seri, the crisis is prompting fear of a war more horrible than the last, as well as hopes that it can somehow be averted. Still, for all the anxiety, the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the villagers is bitterness and a sense that war with India is perhaps inevitable.

“We are very worried about the Indian explosions,” said Karam Illahi, 50, climbing off a truck laden with red bricks. “They have stated their intention to attack us, and they can start a war any time they want to.”

Illahi, a farmer and goatherd, recalled the many times he has been targeted by Indian snipers. The most recent incident, he says, was 12 days ago. “I was plowing my fields, and suddenly I was being shot at,” said Illahi, his wizened face and gap-toothed smile topped by a traditional Pakistani turban. “I stopped my tractor and ran as fast as I could.”

Illahi’s claims, like those of many other villagers, are impossible to verify. Pakistani officials in Kashmir and the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, say villages up and down the Line of Control are routinely shelled and machine-gunned. The Indian government, likewise, claims that civilians living in Indian-occupied Kashmir are regularly murdered and maimed by Pakistanis crossing the border.

Officials at the State Department in Washington say civilians on both sides of the border are indeed being killed. But they say there is insufficient evidence to pinpoint perpetrators.

A quick glance at Bandala Seri suggests that, at the very least, the villagers live in an environment that is often surreal and always dangerous. The tree-lined ridge overlooking the town, known to villagers as Mt. Bear, rises 1,000 feet out of Bandala Valley. To mark the Pakistani side, soldiers have crept up the hill and planted large white letters--a Z, an S, an A--which coincide with their military checkpoints downhill.

The Indian soldiers are invisible except for the search beams that leap from the trees at night. Some of the lights are a mere 500 yards from the center of Bandala Seri, easily within range of a modern rifle or machine gun.

Under Fire, Pakistanis Just Huddle Together

Three days ago, Pakistani villagers said, they had to run for their lives when Indian troops opened fire. When the Indians fire into the village at night, the town folk say, residents gather in one hut and huddle together until it ends.

Early Tuesday, the thunder of artillery fire and the crackle of machine guns 30 miles away were clearly audible in Bandala Seri.

Pakistani officials say they do their best to defend villagers but don’t have nearly the troops that India does. Although a few families have fled the border, most have chosen to stay put. “We are Muslims, and we are not afraid of death,” said Fazal Karim, who runs a pharmacy in the village.

Last month, in a widely reported incident, 22 villagers were massacred in Bandala Seri by gunmen believed to be from India. The villagers say the gang of a dozen men, all dressed in black, struck in the middle of the night and dropped leaflets to mark the attack.

“Vengeance Brigade,” one leaflet said.

“Evil deeds bear evil fruit,” said another.

“Ten eyes for one eye, one jaw for a single tooth,” said a third.

Blood still stains the walls of several huts.

Villagers Deny Links to Militant Groups

When the Pakistani government accused the Indian government of sponsoring the attack, New Delhi denied any responsibility. Some, including U.S. officials, believe the attack may have come in retaliation for the killing of 26 Indian civilians a week before in the villages of Parankot and Dhakikot.

The villagers in Bandala Seri deny that they have any connection to militant groups or that they have engaged in any attacks on Indians. Karim, the pharmacist, who lost 11 relatives in the massacre, said he would welcome a war with the Indians up on the hill, whether they are armed with nuclear weapons or not. “All the time,” Karim said, “I think about revenge.”

Folks here express little hope that relations between India and Pakistan, now fraught by nuclear arms, will improve any time soon.

Nizar Ahmed, whose brother, Zufhkar, was wounded in the attack, said the only solution to the problem in Kashmir is a total Indian withdrawal. If the Indians continue to refuse, he said, he doesn’t hold out much hope. “In that case,” Nizar said, “only atomic weapons will decide our future.”


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