Kashmir attack kills 17 soldiers – India blames Pakistan

Indian army soldiers arrive at the army base which was attacked by suspected rebels in the town of Uri, west of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir on Sept 18. (AP)
Indian army soldiers arrive at the army base which was attacked by suspected rebels in the town of Uri, west of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir on Sept 18. (AP)

SRINAGAR, India, Sept 18, (Agencies): India directly accused Pakistan of being behind Sunday’s separatist attack on an army base near their disputed frontier that killed 17 soldiers, in one of the most deadly attacks in Kashmir in a quarter-century- old insurgency. Four “fidayeen” — or commandostyle gunmen willing to fight to the death — were confirmed killed after penetrating the base in Uri near the Line of Control with Pakistan, an Indian army spokesman said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly condemned what he called the “cowardly terror attack”.

“I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” Modi said in a series of Twitter posts. There has been no claim of responsibility. The raid comes amid heightened tension in India’s only Muslim-majority region, which has faced more than two months of protests following the July 8 killing of a popular separatist commander whose Hizbul Mujahideen group is based in Pakistan.

At least 78 civilians have been killed and thousands injured in street clashes with Indian security forces, who have been criticised by human rights groups for using excessive force. In an even stronger response, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: “Pakistan is a terrorist state and should be identified and isolated as such.” Pakistan rejected allegations that it was involved. “India immediately puts blame on Pakistan without doing any investigation. We reject this,” foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria told Reuters.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence over Kashmir. Both claim the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in full but rule it only in part. Local television reporters at the scene said the dawn raid had surprised soldiers at the Uri brigade headquarters in their sleep. The attackers torched a building and several tents before the four were killed in a gunfight that lasted several hours.

An army spokesman confirmed that the number of soldiers killed in the attack had risen to 17, making the toll far worse than a similar raid on an air force base in Punjab state in January that India blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

Reuters television footage showed helicopters flying in to evacuate the injured as an operation continued to secure the area. Smoke rose from the compound, set in mountainous terrain. The Defence Ministry put the number of wounded at 35. Singh, the home minister, chaired a crisis meeting in New Delhi and cancelled trips to Russia and the United States. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the army chief of staff were on their way to Uri to oversee the operation to secure the area and investigate the attack.

“There are definite and conclusive indications that the perpetrators of Uri attack were highly trained, heavily armed and specially equipped,” Singh said in a series of strongly-worded tweets that were confirmed as genuine by his office. US ambassador to India Richard Verma also “strongly condemned” the Uri attack, which weeks after Secretary of State John Kerry visited New Delhi for strategic talks.

After that meeting Kerry urged Pakistan to do more to combat terrorism, while also announcing the resumption of trilateral talks with India and Afghanistan this month in New York, leaving Islamabad looking isolated.

The military death toll was the worst in Indian-ruled Kashmir since a raid in December 2014, also near Uri which is to the west of the region’s main city of Srinagar, in which eight soldiers and three police were killed. Before this attack, 102 people had been killed in separatist attacks in India’s part of the Himalayan region this year. Among them were 30 security personnel, 71 militants and one civilian, according to a tally by the New Delhibased South Asia Terrorism Portal.

Modi recently raised the stakes in the nuclear-armed neighbours’ decadesold feud by expressing support for separatists in Pakistan’s resource-rich Baluchistan province. Pakistan has, meanwhile, called on the United Nations and the international community to investigate atrocities it alleges have been committed by Indian security forces in Kashmir.

The United Nations is holding its annual general assembly in New York, where Kashmir is likely to come onto the agenda, amid concerns that India’s tough rhetoric could herald a military escalation between the South Asian neighbours. Senior Indian journalist and commentator Shekhar Gupta said Pakistan would be “delusional” to think that India would not respond.

“This India has moved on from old strategic restraint,” he said. Relations between India and Pakistan have been on edge since the New-Year attack on an Indian air force base in Punjab, near the border with Pakistan, that killed seven uniformed men. India has blamed a Pakistan-based militant group for that and a string of other attacks — including one on Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people.

After initial progress, an attempt to conduct a joint investigation into the airbase attack lost momentum. The two sides have frozen a tentative peace dialogue. Here are things to know about the territory: What are they fighting for? Kashmir has been divided between India and neighbouring Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 — but both claim it in full and two of their three wars have been fought over it. Rebel groups are fighting for independence of the Indian-administered portion of the region or its merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people have died since the revolt that broke out in 1989, most of them civilians. Who are the armed groups? Several militant groups have been fighting Indian troops for decades in the Muslim-majority region. About 200 militants, most of them local, are thought to be active across the Kashmir Valley, down from several thousand at the height of the insurgency in the 1990s.

Hizbul Mujahideen is one of the largest rebel groups, while the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front is among those demanding the region’s independence. Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba has also been active there since the early 1990s, carrying out some of the biggest attacks against Indian forces. Why has violence flared recently? Violence has erupted on almost daily basis in Kashmir since the killing of a popular young rebel leader in a gun battle with soldiers on July 8.

Stone-throwing residents protesting against Indian rule have clashed with security forces in the worst unrest since 2010, when weeks of protests convulsed the region. Security experts and India’s government accuse Pakistan of sending rebels across the defacto border into Indian Kashmir to further destabilise the territory. What’s been happening in the region? At least 87 civilians have been killed and thousands injured in the clashes between residents and security forces since the rebel leader was killed.

A curfew has been imposed for weeks to halt the violence, although it has been lifted recently in some areas. Internet and mobile networks have been cut and schools, shops and most banks remain shut. Authorities also banned prayers in the city of Srinagar’s main mosque to mark the Muslim festival of Eid this month in a bid to defuse tensions. How has the government responded? India’s government has cracked down on the protests, saying there is no room for violence.

But it is also under pressure over the number of civilian casualties. It has agreed to curb security forces’ use of shotguns loaded with pellets on protesting crowds that have left thousands with severe eye injuries. New Delhi has also accused Islamabad of stoking the recent unrest, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi squarely holding Pakistan as the “one single nation” responsible for spreading “terrorism” in South Asia. Already tense relations between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have been on edge since January, when militants attacked an Indian air force base, killing seven soldiers.

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