Indian troops stepped up patrols in areas of Kashmir bordering Pakistan today as they moved to ferret out militants responsible for massacres in the troubled territory this week.
The army said it had launched a second day of helicopter operations in mountain and jungle areas of the Jammu and Kashmir state while India made its gambit to end a decade-old rebellion that has stirred up violence and tensions in the area.
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told parliament he would not give up efforts to restore peace.
Those efforts took a stride forward Thursday, when government officials held first talks with the frontline militant group Hizbul Mujahideen in which the two sides agreed to set up a bipartisan committee to thrash out a cease-fire process.
But Kashmir’s main separatist alliance brushed aside the cease-fire talks and said only a three-way dialogue involving it, Pakistan and India could untangle the 53-year-old Kashmir dispute.
“I cannot say about Hizb talks, but a collective political effort is needed, which ipso facto includes India, Pakistan and the APHC,” said Abdul Gani Bhat, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference.
“A step in isolation cannot lead you to your destination,” said Bhat, whose organization includes 22 separatist, religious and political groups.
India has said it is ready to talk to all militant groups, but has frowned on involving arch-rival Pakistan, which it blames for stoking the rebellion.
Pakistan today rejected Vajpayee’s charge that this week’s Kashmir bloodbath was part of a “proxy war” by Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region.
“The government of Pakistan once again rejects these baseless allegations as part of the Indian government’s effort to divert attention from its own atrocities against the Kashmiri people and to malign the Kashmir freedom struggle,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Militant Group Singled Out
Vajpayee singled out the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group for Tuesday night’s attacks, in which at least 90 mostly Hindu pilgrims and laborers were killed.
“The briefing which we were given by the chief of Unified Command and security forces made it clear that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes were foreigners,” he said.
“Arms and ammunitions recovered from them clearly establish their links with Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba,” Vajpayee said.
The militant group, whose ranks include die-hard mercenaries from various Islamic countries, has denied any involvement in the killings this week.
Lashkar-e-Taiba and more than a dozen other Pakistan-based outfits fighting Indian rule in Kashmir regard the three-month cease-fire declared by Hizbul Mujahideen last week as a sellout.
But Vajpayee said it was time these groups realized that the people of India’s only Muslim-majority state craved peace.
“It is futile for them to continue on the path of violence,” he said.
Thursday’s talks with Hizbul Mujahideen, a pro-Pakistan group whose cadres accounted for the majority of some 3,500 militants active in Jammu and Kashmir, were the first that India has held with a rebel group since the insurgency took off in 1989.
The dialogue did nothing to reduce tension on the ground.
India said it had killed four Pakistani soldiers along the Line of Control on Thursday, and patrols were stepped up to capture the gunmen responsible for Tuesday night’s slaughter.
“The search operations continue today, but because of the mountainous terrain, topography of the district and dense jungles, the militants might have slipped from these areas,” said Maj. Gen. P.P.S. Bindra of the Northern Command.
Authorities lifted a day curfew in two areas of the Jammu region. But Jammu city was still crippled by a near-total curfew for a third day, and security men guarded telephone exchanges, television stations and other vital installations.
Hindu right-wing groups considered close to Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party called a general strike in Delhi and several other areas today against the killing of pilgrims.
Local media said transport from Bombay’s western suburbs was badly hit and there had been some violence.
In the western state of Gujarat, officials said a curfew had been imposed in the textile town of Surat after three people were stabbed to death Thursday during a protest strike.