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New India-Pakistan Skirmishes Disrupt U.S. Policy in Himalayas

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Growing tension between India and Pakistan over the activities of Muslim guerrillas in the disputed region of Kashmir is raising new challenges for the United States as it seeks to hold together its international antiterrorism coalition.

U.S. officials have called Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed by both nations, and divided between them, the most dangerous place in the world. There, on frigid glaciers, in scenic valleys and through hilly villages, Indian troops have battled a Pakistani-backed Muslim insurgency for more than a decade. The fighting has claimed tens of thousands of lives, raising fears of a full-scale war between the two nuclear powers, both of which are key U.S. allies in the effort to squelch terrorism.

Those worries have taken on a new currency since the commencement of U.S.-led military strikes against Afghanistan. Guerrilla violence has surged in Kashmir over the past few weeks, with daily death tolls in double figures. On Oct. 1, terrorists linked to a militant group in Pakistan killed 38 people at the state legislature in a suicide bombing and subsequent shootout.

On Monday, apparently in response to that attack and an alleged border incursion by Pakistani soldiers, the Indian army said it had shelled Pakistani military positions across the disputed cease-fire line for the first time in 10 months. An Indian army official claimed that a volley of rockets, mortars, grenades and machine-gun fire flattened almost a dozen Pakistani military posts, but a Pakistani army official denied the posts were destroyed and accused India of targeting civilians.

Tensions have been stoked by leaders of both nations, who have vowed to use their support for the U.S. attack on Afghanistan to advance their own agenda on Kashmir.

The Pakistani government says it provides only diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri guerrillas, whom it calls ``freedom fighters.'' But Indian officials contend Pakistan funds and trains the rebels.

India wants the United States to broaden its antiterrorism campaign to target organizations in Pakistan that, the Indian government contends, have spearheaded violence in Kashmir. Although India does not play as crucial a role as Pakistan in the strikes on Afghanistan, Indian officials emphasize that they are sharing intelligence with the United States and offered their airspace and military bases to the United States before Pakistan did.

Defusing the tension is a key priority of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived Monday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and was to travel here Tuesday.