As spring arrives, Kashmir braces for fresh fighting

More than 100 Muslims in Kashmir have been charged under a new antiterorrism law.

In the mountains of Kashmir, the snow pack is melting and soldiers are preparing for a fresh onslaught of Pakistan-based militants through the mountain passes and across the cease-fire line.

The militants include separatists in a 13-year-old insurgency movement in Kashmir. India has used a controversial new antiterrorism law to arrest one of the most prominent Kashmir separatists, Yaseen Malik.

Indian military sources say that, despite assurances of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, there has been no let up in cross-border activity by militant groups. Indeed, Islamic separatists killed at least seven people yesterday in Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, the only majority Muslim state in India.

Making this spring's militant assault even more dangerous, Indian military sources say, is the possibility that members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist cells may slip across the border from hideouts in Pakistan and carry out their jihad, or holy war, inside the state.

"There is a very good chance of these Al Qaeda forces coming into Kashmir, if they haven't done so already. So, deescalation is not possible at the moment," says says Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general and a military analyst based in Delhi.

For their part, Indian authorities have been carrying out door-to-door sweeps in Kashmir, searching for weapons and militants and also arresting Kashmiri political leaders under a newly-passed Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), all of which raises concerns within the human-rights community.

"We could be in a shooting war by the end of April," says Kanti Bajpai, a security analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "There is nothing in the wind at all, no secret talks being held. It certainly all looks very bad up to now."

About the only thing in the air now is the crackle of wireless radios, as militants prepare for more attacks. According to radio messages intercepted by Indian military intelligence, as reported in the Indian Express newspaper, militants inside the Indian section of Kashmir are urged to avoid high-profile targets, such as the Dec. 13 attack on India's Parliament. Instead, the militants are urged to carry on a low-level guerrilla war against military targets and make the Indian "occupation" of Kashmir painful.

Both in the valley of Kashmir itself, where Muslims are the strong majority, and in the plains around Jammu, where Hindus have a slight majority, tempers are flaring. In Jammu, the state's winter capital, members of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party have resigned from the state assembly en masse to protest the suicide bomb attack against the Raghunath temple, an attack that killed 10 worshippers and the bomber himself.

And in Srinagar, the summer capital that rests in the lush valley where Muslims hold the majority, numerous strikes have been called to protest the arrest of separatist leader Mr. Malik.

Malik was arrested March 24 on charges of conspiracy to receive $100,000 in illegal funds, sent by US and British donors to Malik's party, the onetime militant group Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

Because the money was allegedly being sent through the same informal "hawala" channels used by some militant and terrorist groups, Malik is being charged under the POTA, which gives sweeping new powers of detention and punishment to judicial authorities in terrorism-related cases.

According to Malik's sister, Amina, who has visited Malik in jail, he was beaten during interrogation after he refused to sign a confession. The beatings were so harsh, Malik family spokesman Ghulam Rasul says, that Malik has been sent to a military hospital in Jammu, where he has gone on a hunger strike. Human rights activists say they fear that Malik's recent heart surgery in the US has been reversed by the beatings.

For their part, fellow Kashmiri separatists say the charges against Malik are merely an attempt to discredit a top separatist leader who was leading an effort to hold statewide alternative elections to select "Kashmir's true representatives."

"There's no proof that this money was meant for terrorism," says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a young but popular leader of Srinagar's largest mosque, the Jamia Masjid.

"We don't deny that people are sending us money to help, to provide relief and rehabilitation for the people. But not for militancy or violent purposes. This is all framed-up," Mr. Farooq says.

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