July 2004 News

Kashmir Fence Buoys Indian Army, Rebels Undeterred

25 July 2004

Gwalta Post: Tushar Patil, an Indian soldier posted on the frontline in Kashmir, has been sleeping better over the last few months. The guns on one of the world's most militarised borders are silent for the first time in years after India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire last November. And earlier this year, Indian army engineers fenced a ceasefire line in Patil's area to prevent incursions by Muslim guerrillas fighting New Delhi's rule in the disputed region. 'It has made a big difference. We know the fence won't allow those terrorists to cross over so easily,' Patil said. 'And if they try to breach it, we'll get to know and stop them.' The fence is considered New Delhi's most ambitious military attempt to curb the cross-border influx of militants from bases on Pakistani soil since an insurgency started in Kashmir in 1989. Built well inside Indian territory, it passes through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the subcontinent, covering jungles, rocky mountains, slopes covered by snow in winter, deep gorges and valleys with fast-flowing streams. At Gwalta Post, a remote border point west of Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, the silver-coloured fence begins in a gorge on the banks of the Jhelum river, and snakes its way up on a rocky hillside covered with shrubs and trees. It consists of three rows of concertina wire, about 10 ft (three metres) high, electrified and connected to a network of motion sensors, thermal imaging devices and alarms India has acquired from the United States and Israel. It covers a distance of about three km (two miles) to the peak before plunging down the slope on the other side and running as far as the eye can see. CLOSELY GUARDED The fence is watched by Gurkha soldiers equipped with night-vision binoculars, stationed in a mountain-top post. The other side is monitored by posts on the edge of the gorge, where shepherds lazily graze their sheep and turrets of heavy artillery guns point skywards towards Pakistan. India began fencing the 742-km (460-mile) Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the nuclear-armed foes nearly two years ago. But progress was slowed by the tough terrain, which allows only about 500-km of the frontier to be fenced, and regular exchange of fire between troops on the two sides. Last November's truce, however, helped it gather pace and the project is now almost complete. 'The fence is a big hindrance, a major obstacle,' Lieutenant Colonel George Abraham, commander of Patil's unit, told Reuters. 'It is monitored round the clock.' 'If it prevents an infiltrator 90 percent, we will take care of the other 10 percent,' he said. 'But it is not impregnable. And knowing those fellows, they will try to overcome it.' India accuses Pakistan of arming, training and pushing in militants to sustain the Kashmir revolt that has claimed more than 40,000 lives so far. The two countries nearly came to the brink of a third war over the disputed territory in 2002 but have since begun peace talks to resolve the row that is at the core of their enmity. TACIT APPROVAL? Kashmiri militant groups say the fence is India's attempt to convert a temporary ceasefire line into a permanent border, a move long opposed by Pakistan. It has also not deterred them from trying to sneak in. A top army commander said there were over 20 infiltration attempts in three weeks between late-June and mid-July. More than 20 rebels were killed trying to cross over, some carrying shock-proof gloves and wire-cutters. Islamabad has criticised the fence saying New Delhi has taken advantage of the ceasefire and was not justified in building it. But Pakistan's anger has seemed rather muted. Some analysts say the project might even have Islamabad's tacit approval, since it takes the pressure off Pakistan to prevent rebel incursions. Fencing would have been impossible if Pakistan wanted to prevent it, they said. 'I think Pakistan does not want to play the militant card in the future because it has not worked for so many years,' Talat Masood, a former Pakistani military general, told Reuters. 'They want to give an impression to the international community and to India that they are very serious about not encouraging the militants,' he said. But if the ongoing peace process falters, the fence could become a target. 'It can be greatly damaged by firing and gaps can be created if there is military action. So it is not such a formidable wall.'


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