ANALYSIS-Kashmir gunbattle raises security worries in India

26 March 2009

New Delhi: A five-day gunbattle between militants and the Indian army in Kashmir has raised security concerns about more attacks in the disputed region before a general election, army officials and experts said. At least 25 people - eight of them soldiers - were killed in the Kashmir gunbattle this week as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants played cat-and-mouse with the army in dense forests. Army officials say the militants infiltrated India by crossing the Line of Control, a ceasefire line that divides the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan. The number of militants, their high level of training and good equipment has worried officials. The raid also came early in the year when many mountain passes are still covered with thick snow, apparently taking authorities by surprise. 'This is a serious development,' said Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi-based security analyst. Indian authorities said on Thursday all 17 militants killed in the Kashmir gunbattle were non-Indians. Authorities recovered global positioning systems (GPS), 23 assault rifles, grenade launchers and 10 radio sets, as well as a large cache of arms and ammunition. Indian experts link an increase in cross-border attacks in the past year to the problems a new and fragile civilian government in Pakistan has had in controlling its own military as well as Islamist militants and separatists. At the same time, Washington worries that internal political squabbling is distracting Pakistan from the battle to root out al Qaeda and Taliban enclaves on its northwestern border, which it sees as essential in stabilising neighbouring Afghanistan. 'The militants are not bothered at whatever the new government is saying. The rising infiltration shows the militants are not only moving around within Pakistan, but freely crossing over to India, with some support,' said Shashank, a former Indian foreign secretary. DETERMINATION Analysts also see similarities between the Kashmir gunbattle and last November's Mumbai attacks. India has blamed LeT - set up in the 1990s to fight Indian rule in Kashmir - for the Mumbai attacks which killed 166 people during a three-day siege. 'The gunbattle in a way has a correspondence with the Mumbai tragedy, especially the determination of the militants to pursue their agenda for five days,' Bhaskar said. Indian army officials and experts fear more attacks by LeT militants in Kashmir to disrupt April-May general elections in the world's largest democracy. 'I am sure they want to bring Kashmir to the limelight again by resorting to attacks,' said Noor Ahmad Baba, dean of social sciences faculty in Kashmir University. India accuses Pakistan of arming, training and sending militants to its part of Kashmir, a charge Islamabad denies. India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part and have fought two of their three wars since independence over the mountainous Himalayan region. 'I can definitely say that Lashkar is very much still active,' Indian Army chief Deepak Kapoor told reporters in New Delhi, adding militants were training in 40-50 camps in Pakistan. While violence had declined in Kashmir since India and Pakistan began a slow-moving peace process in 2004, New Delhi paused that dialogue after the Mumbai attacks. The Kashmir battle also showed that suspicions India holds about Pakistan's wider intentions - heightened after the Mumbai attacks - were unlikely to improve soon. 'India will always say, how can we talk to a guy and smile, when you know he is shooting at us,' Naresh Chandra, a former diplomat said.