Attacks on Kashmir civilians spoil cease-fire goodwill

By yesterday evening, seven separate attacks left 93 civilians and others dead.

Days after a historic cease-fire deal in Kashmir, serious violence has erupted in what appears to be a gruesome shakeout among militant groups unhappy about proposed talks between the Hizbul Mujahideen and the government of India over self-determination for the 98 percent Muslim valley.

In the worst bloodletting in years, a strange array of 93 villagers, Hindu pilgrims and migrant laborers, militants, and security force personnel were brutally killed in what was reported as one, then four, then seven attacks. Throughout the Kashmir valley, militants conducted revenge operations by rampaging through largely Hindu areas under cover of darkness.

On the face of it, the shakeout is between hard-line groups in Pakistan who want Kashmir to become part of a regional pan-Islamic dream and local militants in Kashmir. The local militants, while sympathetic with Pakistan, and who have become more "Islamized" in recent years, instead have pushed for greater political freedom and autonomy from India.

Last week the Hizbul Mujahideen, by far the largest local militant outfit in Kashmir, unexpectedly offered the first cease-fire to India since 1994. The offer, validated by Hizbul chief Syed Salahuddin in Islamabad, was quickly accepted by India - partly on the calculation that any more violence could be blamed on Pakistan and Pakistan-backed militants, and that Pakistan would be further isolated from its designs on the valley.

The Hizbul this week had appointed a delegation to meet with Indian officials, hoping that increased dialogue will force India to bend to the overwhelming desire in the war-weary valley for greater freedom, and that it would open talks with a group of popular local leaders known as the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Disagreement among rebels

For this reason, tensions have grown between local Hizbul militants who want talks and at least 12 other small militant groups in the valley, many of whom have ties to Pakistan. In the seven massacres, just three militants were killed, all local Kashmiris. However, the dead are suspected to have been trained across the border in Pakistan by the Laskhar-e-Toiba or the Jaish-e-Muhammad, sources say. The groups' leaders advocate greater territorial unity between Muslim Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan.

Indeed, most Islamic groups in Pakistan have rejected the Hizbul cease-fire. The United Jihad Council in Muzzafarabad, the capital of what is known as Azad Kashmir, the one-third of disputed Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, called for "increased" military activities in the valley.

Predictably, both the Indian government in New Delhi and the Pakistani government in Islamabad officially blamed the other for the killings. The massacres put Pakistani chief executive Pervez Musharraf in an extremely uncomfortable position. While Gen. Musharraf has tacitly supported a jihad in Kashmir, he is also known to oppose an unchecked rise of zealous paramilitary Islamic groups in his country.

Last March, on the day President Clinton arrived in India, 33 Sikh villagers were massacred in the Kashmiri village of Chattisinghpura by unknown terrorists. The case was muddied by clear evidence that the later deaths of six men claimed by Indian security forces to be the killers were actually local villagers killed and quickly buried by Indian troops.

However, in the current massacres in Kashmir, there is only one significant instance in which Indian forces exchanged gunfire with militants. The other six incidents seemed to occur far away from police involvement.

Call for NGO probes

On Wednesday, the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference in Kashmir, a loose confederation of local leaders who have broad support in the valley, called for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to be allowed to come into the valley and investigate the killings. Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, new chairman for the Hurriyat, said, "Whosoever is responsible must pay. We want an investigation. This is a black hand, unacceptable, and we oppose it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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