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August 16, 2013

Pakistan: Indian Shelling Wounds Civilians in Kashmir

by Ayaz Gul

Pakistan on Friday alleged there has been no let up in shelling by Indian troops that began early this month across the Kashmir border. The military says that two people have died and 12 have been wounded, including four soldiers. The Foreign Ministry also has dismissed the Indian prime minister’s statement in which he asked Pakistan to prevent Islamist militants from using Pakistani soil to attack India.

Authorities in Pakistan and India accuse one another of starting the latest round of hostilities in the disputed Kashmir territory in violation of a mutually declared cease-fire that has largely held for more than a decade.

The skirmishes began two weeks ago when New Delhi alleged that a group of heavily armed Islamist militants and Pakistani soldiers crossed the military line of control in the remote Poonch district of Kashmir and killed five Indian soldiers.

Islamabad denies any role in the incident and instead accuses India of killing two civilians and wounding eight others in what it condemned as “unprovoked” shelling across the disputed border. The Pakistani military says the firing also injured four of its soldiers.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif earlier this week urged India to take steps to “defuse the tension and de-escalate the situation” in Kashmir and give diplomacy a chance to settle differences.

On Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that relations with Pakistan could only improve once Islamabad prevented Islamist militants from using Pakistani territory to attack India.

Speaking to reporters in Islamabad Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry explained Pakistan’s position.

“Pakistan has a longstanding determination not to allow our territory to be used for terrorism anywhere in the world," he said. "We believe that Pakistan, being itself a victim of terrorism, has absolutely no interest in that. We are, as a nation, trying to overcome this menace, and the present government is fully committed [to do so] and is in the process of formulating a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy.”

Pakistan has been fighting its own protracted war against Islamic militants for more than a decade. The extremist outfits have responded by carrying out frequent suicide and other terrorist attacks, killing thousands of Pakistanis, including security forces. A recent privately conducted survey says that in the last three months alone, more than 1,700 people have died in at least 70 major terrorist attacks around the country. 

Pakistan wants peace in the region and seeks "tension-free" relations with India, said Chaudhry.

“The anticipated meeting between the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Prime Minister of India in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next month would be one such occasion where all these issues are likely to come up. Should that meeting take place, that would be a useful opportunity, a welcome opportunity, to discuss steps not only to reduce tensions, but also to improve relations between the two countries," he said.

Prime Minister Sharif returned to power in June for an unprecedented third, non-consecutive term and has called for a “new beginning” in Pakistan’s relations with India. But the latest military clashes threaten attempts on both sides to resume a wide-ranging dialogue to ease tensions and resolve long running disputes, including Kashmir.

New Delhi has long accused the Pakistani military of nurturing militants to fuel a Muslim insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir, charges Islamabad denies.  The territorial dispute is blamed for two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 and brought them to the brink of a third conflict in 1999.

Indian authorities blame Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, for major terrorist attacks in the country in recent years and have consistently demanded Islamabad hand over the group’s founding leader, Hafiz Saeed, to New Delhi before the countries can hold any talks on contentious bilateral issues. 

Pakistan insists Indian officials have so far not provided any proof that would link the Islamic cleric with subversive acts in India. Critics and Pakistani newspaper editorials, however, consistently question the freedom Saeed enjoys to deliver provocative anti-India speeches at time when the Shrift government is attempting to resume peace talks with the neighboring country.