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India, Pakistan Exchange Fire in Kashmir - 2002-05-27

Indian and Pakistani troops have exchanged heavy fire across the line of control in Kashmir, and both sides have reported several casualties. The exchange of fire continues despite international pressure on the South Asian rivals to take steps to reduce tensions.

Indian officials say the firing has spread to new areas along the tense line of control that divides Kashmir. They say a heavy exchange of mortar, artillery and machine gun fire lasted several hours Monday.

Tensions have surged following an attack by suspected Islamic militants on an army camp in Indian-controlled Kashmir two weeks ago. Officials report a daily exodus of villagers, not only in Kashmir but also along the border with Pakistan in Punjab and Rajasthan states.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on vacation in the Himalayan foothills, has maintained close contact with top security officials. He is to return to New Delhi Tuesday. Indian officials say they are closely watching a scheduled address by Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to his nation.

New Delhi has accused Pakistan of not implementing pledges to crackdown on Islamic militants. Pakistan denies aiding the Muslim militants.

But amid tough talk of fighting a decisive battle to end militant attacks, Mr. Vajpayee has also said he is waiting to see if the international community can persuade Islamabad to end its support of what New Delhi calls "cross-border terrorism."

In the coming days, the focus is expected to turn to an international diplomatic initiative to defuse tensions between the two hostile neighbors. Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, begins a visit to the troubled region on Tuesday. He will be followed next week by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Meanwhile, India's finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, told reporters India's economy is better prepared for war than Pakistan, but said war is the last option.