On the Nuclear Frontier in Pakistan

Villagers, Army tell of Indian attacks, hoping to draw world attention

On a road exposed to gunfire from Indian bunkers hidden in the mountainside, Pakistani officers took journalists this week to a front line of the Kashmir conflict.

In a valley near Chakothi, the last frontier town on the Pakistani side, they wanted to show why the international community should help resolve the territorial dispute.

"You are now in the middle of the shelling zone from last year," said Brigadier Haider Khan, the Pakistani army commander in the sector. Last summer, he explained, Pakistan troops at a military-observation post came under fire from the Indian side.

This is the LOC - the "line of control" - the disputed border that divides the state of Kashmir between India and Pakistan in the Himalayas.

Even in peaceful times, each side has kept thousands of troops on guard at the LOC. Now that the two rivals have demonstrated their nuclear prowess, places like Chakothi have become a trip-wire for nuclear conflict.

An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 villagers live around Chakothi, one of the most tense regions of the world, a two-hour drive from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled territory. People here remain skeptical about a quick solution to one of the world's thorniest disputes.

For farmer Raja Mir Afzal in Chakothi, the conflict has already become deadly. As he wipes his eyes and strokes his gray beard, he tells how two teenage boys in his neighborhood were killed by Indian troops from across the LOC.

"Those boys had not seen anything in life," Mr. Afzal says in Punjabi, a local language. "Even the funeral had to take place in the dark because of fears that there would be firing."

Not like US-Soviet cold war

The recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan are widely believed by Western diplomats to have set the pace for continued tensions and exchanges of bellicose rhetoric, adding to frictions in Kashmir. But officials also say the nuclear tests are not necessarily a precursor to India and Pakistan using nuclear weapons.

Some diplomats also say that nuclear deterrence between the two countries should not be seen in the same light as the United States-Soviet Union cold war. One Western diplomat who spoke anonymously says: "The US and Soviet Union did not have common borders, did not have troops directly firing upon each other, and did not have each other's people coming under fire.

"This is a qualitatively different situation because even if the nuclear tests deter the use of nuclear weapons, they don't necessarily help to ease tensions."

Pakistan is, however, pleased with growing international interest in pushing for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

"If the Kashmir issue can be brought under the international spotlight, that could be an important development," Sultan Mahmood Chaudhary, prime minister of the Pakistani-controlled Kashmir area told the Monitor. Mr. Chaudhary repeated the official view that the people of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim territory, should be allowed to decide through a United Nations-sponsored plebiscite if they want to join Pakistan or India.

In the past, successive Indian governments have rejected the demand on the grounds that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. And Pakistan has denied Indian claims that it is training and infiltrating gunmen who are involved in hit-and-run operations across the LOC.

According to Brigadier Khan, who commands the Chakothi sector, it is practically impossible for anyone to go across either side in the midst of the heavily fortified terrain.

Allegation of torture by Indians

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, in one of the refugee camps set up by the government of Kashmir, life carries different meanings for two generations.

Samundar Mir, a farmer from a village in Indian-controlled territory, claims that he was made to stand in chest-deep water by Indian troops during below-freezing winter temperatures and questioned if he knew of the hideouts of Muslim gunmen. Holding his young son, Ijaz, Mr. Mir says he hopes to see the day "when my son can go back and find peace in this land of my ancestors."

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