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Bit by bit, Indo-Pakistani tensions escalate

India downed a Pakistani plane Tuesday, just weeks after Kashmir had

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 12, 1999



NEW DELHI

The downing of a Pakistani reconnaissance plane by India continues more than a year of escalating hostility between the two neighboring South Asian states, including a brutal 11-week fight in the Himalayas of Kashmir this spring.

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The Pakistani naval surveillance plane, carrying a crew of 16, including five officers, was shot down Tuesday over a disputed border near the Kori Creek coastal area of the state of Gujarat. The details are hotly contested by both sides, with Pakistan saying part of the wreckage landed on its soil. Both countries' Armies and Navies are on high alert. As of press time, Pakistani officials claimed to have shot missiles at Indian jets in the area of the downed plane.

Yet whether one downed plane will be quickly forgotten amid larger grievances between the two sides is less important, diplomats here say, than that the incident increases tensions dating roughly to May 1998, when both states successfully tested nuclear weapons. Since that time, the scale of cross-border incursions, violations of airspace, and a heavy and hateful propaganda war has risen significantly, amounting nearly to a "cold war" between the two sides.

This week, for example, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee suggested that the United States brand Pakistan a "terrorist nation."

Indeed, so combative has the Indo-Pakistani situation become that the so-called "spirit of Lahore" - the peace accords signed amid fanfare last February - now seem an aberration rather than a thawing trend.

Indian officials did not at first allow reporters into the Kori Creek area to examine the wreckage, but flew some of it back to New Delhi. According to Indian military officials, the Pakistani plane had drifted six miles into Indian airspace when it was intercepted by an Indian MiG jet. The Indian pilot signaled the lumbering prop plane to land at an Indian base, but instead the Pakistani antisubmarine plane turned toward the MiG, leaving the pilot no option but to shoot.

Pakistani sources dispute this version of events. They argue the plane was scanning the waterfront for signs of Indian vessels, since India had threatened to blockade the port town of Karachi during the 11-week fight in Kashmir known as the Kargil crisis. They say the aircraft was downed two miles inside their border. Mufti Jamiluddin Ahmad, spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in New Delhi, says the shooting was "cowardly." He adds, "It is a plane that can't defend itself."

Violations of airspace occur regularly between the rivals, with Indian intelligence officials counting eight violations by Pakistan during June and July. Indian sources say reasons for shooting down the plane at this time range from retribution against Pakistan for downing two Indian MiG jets in May during the Kargil crisis, to an attempt to divert attention during the upcoming national election from the "bungling" of Indian intelligence this spring, which failed to detect a large operation of Pakistani troops that crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir along a 100-mile stretch of mountains.

"You can't detach this shooting from the Kargil war," says Amitabh Mattoo, a specialist on disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "The fuse of the armed forces after the high casualty rates at Kargil is extremely short."

In India, the downing of the plane takes place amid the start of an election campaign set to begin Sept. 6. It also vies with daily headlines of significant violence in the 95 percent Muslim Kashmir valley, where Pakistani-based infiltrators are still waging a war of destabilization and violence against some 450,000 Indian troops that have been based there for nearly a decade. On Aug. 6, Kashmiri militants stormed an Indian Army base, killing a major and six soldiers. The euphoria felt here after the Kargil war presumably ended has also given way to new claims by Indian officials of 1,200 militants ready to cross the Line of Control into Kashmir.

At the same time, Indian military forces, partly in response to the Kargil crisis, are feeling more aggressive and more eager to take the fight to the Pakistanis, according to Western diplomats here. Sources say the Indian jets patrolling the border have been given "wide-ranging authority to take a less defensive and more offensive posture."

"The Army is pretty self-confident right now," says one European-based diplomat. "Somehow, the inferiority complex we've seen for many years has been overcome, at least temporarily."

In 1991 the two sides signed an agreement not to violate each other's airspace within about seven miles of the border areas. Indian officials say the plane was downed inside that space. Pakistani officials counter that the actual Prevention of Airspace Violations agreement states that the first rule is to "promptly investigate" the violation - not shoot.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society