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India Accuses Pakistan of Barrage

May 21, 1998

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ India accused Pakistan on Thursday of firing artillery, mortars and guns across their border to cover up the movement of militants into India’s Kashmir province. Pakistan denied the charge.

Cross-border tensions have been rising all week following India’s underground nuclear tests, which has Pakistan weighing whether to respond with nuclear tests of its own.

Kashmir, a Himalayan region that straddles the two countries, has long been a flashpoint, sparking two of the three wars between Pakistan and India. Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in predominantly Hindu India.

After the defense minister of India’s new Hindu-led government leveled the charges against Pakistan on Thursday, a top aide to the Indian prime minister said his boss was hoping for talks with his Pakistani counterpart to defuse the tensions. But the aide, Brajesh Misra, did not retract the earlier accusation.

Since Tuesday, Pakistan has fired artillery, mortars, anti-aircraft guns and automatic weapons into India, the Defense Ministry said. It did not mention casualties, and said Indian troops did not return the fire.

``Pakistan firing and artillery shelling has been totally unprovoked and it appears to be a cover-up activity to push in heavily armed militant groups into Kashmir valley,″ the ministry said.

A Pakistani government official called the Indian accusations baseless, according to the state-owned Associated Press of Pakistan.

On the streets of Pakistan, reaction to the growing hostility with India ran the gamut from defiance and anger to pleadings for peace. Small groups of men stood on street corners and sat around cups of tea, deep in conversation.

``Let them come,″ said Mia Ghulam Rasul, a local lawmaker in the town of Muzaffarabad, about 35 miles from the border. ``We will make Kashmir India’s Vietnam.″

India repeatedly accuses Pakistan of arming and training Muslim militants in Indian Kashmir who are seeking either independence or a merger with officially Islamic Pakistan. Pakistan says it merely provides moral support to the militants.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered talks with Pakistan earlier this month _ before India’s five underground nuclear explosions _ and has identified eight issues for discussion, his aide, Brajesh Misra, said Thursday. He said Pakistan had yet to respond. Talks begun under a previous Indian government have stalled.

Earlier this month, Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah announced a major military operation against Muslim militants following several massacres of Hindus in the state.

He refused to say when the operation would begin, but troops appear to be moving into place for an offensive.

The Kashmir conflict has been infused with a new element of urgency because of the fears and anger triggered by India’s nuclear tests last week. U.S. officials have been trying to sway Islamabad from setting off retaliatory blasts.

India on Thursday renewed its commitment not to conduct further nuclear tests, and offered to put the pledge in writing.

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