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World - Asia/Pacific

Diplomatic efforts stall in Kashmir fighting

June 4, 1999
Web posted at: 12:20 p.m. EDT (1620 GMT)

DRAS, India (CNN) -- Indian troops and pilots stepped up their assault Friday against what they say are Pakistan- backed guerrillas in the mountains of Kashmir, as hopes for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in the disputed territory faded.

Indian artillery pounded mountain strongholds above the towns of Kargil, Dras and Batalik. The rebels have occupied high ground above a key highway that runs through the Himalayan province.

New Delhi says the Islamic militants, who want either independence for the portion of Kashmir controlled by India or favor its union with Pakistan, are backed by Islamabad. Pakistan denies it is providing the guerrillas with military support. Both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir.

In Islamabad, the United Jehad Council -- the guerrillas' united front -- claimed Indian fighter jets were dropping napalm and cluster bombs on their positions in the mountains -- a claim Indian military spokesmen denied.

India says it has lost 48 troops in the fighting that began May 26, with another 12 missing.

Signs of a diplomatic thaw between the two countries appeared as Pakistan freed an Indian fighter pilot who parachuted into its territory during a mission last week. The pilot, Flight Lt. K. Nachiketa, returned to India on Friday to the cheers of about 1,500 people.

But India still has not agreed to a date for a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, and Pakistan accuses India of stalling the talks. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has put India on the defensive by releasing Nachiketa and offering to send Aziz to New Delhi.

India's government, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, faces elections in September. Analysts say any peace gesture by Vajpayee's government could be seen as a sign of weakness by voters.

U.S. President Bill Clinton wrote to both leaders, Indian officials said Friday, asking them to take immediate steps to defuse the crisis.

In the 10 days since India launched its assault, artillery duels between Indian and Pakistani troops across the U.N.- drawn border dividing Kashmir have intensified.

Many fear India's move against the insurgents, who have battled New Delhi for a decade, could lead to a wider conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers.

Kashmir has been the flash point for two of the three Indo- Pakistani wars since the countries won independence from Britain in 1947. The current conflict comes a year after both countries tested nuclear weapons, and has raised tensions on the subcontinent to the highest level in nearly three decades.

New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra, Correspondent Kasra Naji andReuters contributed to this report.



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RELATED SITES:
India Monitor
     •Kashmir
Contemporary conflicts: Kashmir
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The Government of Pakistan
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