Fears of war as tension mounts between Indian and Pakistan

Associated Press Writer

NEW DELHI, India (AP) -- Indian and Pakistani troops shelled each other in disputed Kashmir overnight, and the Indian army ordered the evacuation Friday of dozens of border villages, raising fears of war.

As the shelling ended two days of relative calm, Pakistan warned that India's build-up of troops at the border could make a confrontation between the two nuclear-armed nations inevitable.

"The Indian government is putting itself into a corner where it would be difficult for them to now back off," said Gen. Rashid Quereshi, spokesman for Pakistan's military-led government. "Any deployment in excess of what is required ... will be seen as a threat by the other country."

The two neighbors on Thursday exchanged diplomatic and economic sanctions seen as the toughest since they last fought a war in 1971. Tensions have surged since a Dec. 13 suicide attack on India's parliament that left nine Indians and five attackers dead. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the attackers, a charge Pakistan denies.

The Bush administration urged the leaders of the two countries to come to an understanding at a South Asia summit in Nepal on Jan. 4-6.. "They need to resolve their differences through dialogue," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.

Among the sanctions each country imposed was a ban on overflights by the other's planes. India's Foreign Ministry said Friday the government would make an exception to its ban to allow Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to fly through its airspace to attend the Nepal summit.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is also to attend the summit, but India has not said if the two leaders will meet.

The armies fired mortars at each other for five hours Thursday night in the Poonch sector along the cease-fire line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, an Indian army official said on condition of anonymity.

He said there was also intermittent small arms fire across the border, but that the exchanges died down Friday morning. There was no immediate comment from Pakistan.

Villagers in Indian-ruled Kashmir fled their homes with cots, clothes and fears that India and Pakistan will go to war for the fourth time since they became independent from Britain and were separated in 1947.

"The war is about to break out," said Sumitra Devi, an elderly woman sheltering with her sons and grandsons at a dilapidated school at Koota in Jammu-Kashmir state.

Devi's house was demolished in the 1971 war with Pakistan, and she said she was already packed Thursday when soldiers came to her village, Mangoo Chak, and told people to evacuate.

The Indian army told some 5,000 people in 17 villages in Kashmir to leave their homes within 36 hours, officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Friday. The army had already warned about 10,000 people in 24 villages near the Pakistani border to move.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, squadrons of fighter jets, artillery and ballistic missiles face each other along the 1,100-mile border that reaches from the Himalayas in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south. Both sides say they don't want war, but each says it is ready.

"There is no measuring scale that we have to say how near or how far we are to war," Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said Thursday night. "I will just say this: Don't worry. We are ready."

In Pakistan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said Friday he hoped "better sense" will prevail.

In the mutual sanctions announced Thursday, India and Pakistan each ordered half the other's embassy staffs sent home, as well as the overflight ban.

Since Indian planes already avoided Pakistani airspace, the flight ban -- due to come into effect Tuesday -- hurts Pakistan more. Pakistan International Airlines said Friday it would cancel 12 flights a week to India and reroute 13 others to Asian destinations because they use Indian airspace. No details on the economic cost were available.

The Group of Eight leading industrial nations Friday called on India and Pakistan to resume dialogue, Russia's Foreign Ministry said. The statement, initiated by Russia, a traditional friend of India, also called on Pakistan to act against militants. The G-8 also includes the United States, Italy, France, Britain, Germany, Canada and Japan.

Like two of the three wars the neighbors have fought, the current tensions have their roots in Kashmir, a mostly Muslim province divided between Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan but claimed by both.

India accuses Pakistan of fomenting violence in its part of Kashmir, where Islamic guerrillas have waged a separatist war that has killed tens of thousands of people since 1989. Pakistan denies the charge and calls it an indigenous struggle.

India demands Pakistan shut down and extradite the leaders of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, two militant groups fighting in Kashmir that it accuses in the Parliament attack. Pakistan says it will take action against the anyone whose involvement in the attack is proven.

Pakistan has frozen assets of the groups and arrested members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, but India has said the moves are only cosmetic.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Munir Ahmad in Lahore, Pakistan, and Binoo Joshi in Koota, Jammu-Kashmir contributed to this report.