By Fayaz Bukhari
Five Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush along the disputed border with Pakistan in Kashmir on Tuesday, India said, a clash that threatens to derail renewed efforts to resume peace talks between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The attack, one of the worst since the South Asian neighbours signed a ceasefire in 2003, puts the Indian government under pressure to respond aggressively as it heads into a tough election next year.
“The peace talks were in any case quite tentative, and they have now certainly suffered a serious blow,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research think tank in New Delhi.
India summoned Pakistan’s deputy envoy to New Delhi and lodged a protest over the killings near the Line of Control (LoC) dividing the region, a government source said.
A Pakistani security official denied there had been any exchange of fire on the border. “There has been no incident whatsoever,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Indian army sources said the attack took place in the early hours of Tuesday about 450 metres (500 yards) inside Indian territory, where six soldiers were on patrol. One soldier survived.
“The ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms,” Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony said in a statement to parliament.
“I assure the house that our army is fully ready to take all necessary steps to uphold the sanctity of the LoC.”
The raid took place near an outpost of 21 Bihar Regiment in the Poonch sector in the south of Jammu and Kashmir state, officials said.
It came just as India was considering dates proposed by Pakistan to resume talks that were suspended in January after two Indian soldiers were killed, including one who decapitated, in a clash on the border.
Islamabad has also been pushing for a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who made better ties with India a theme in his election campaign in May – and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, Indian officials said.
“It would be fruitless at this point to negotiate with the PMLN (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz),” said K.C. Singh, a former Indian ambassador. “We don’t know whether they are incapable or unwilling to handle the jihadi (militant groups) and the military, which have, in concert in the past decade, time and time again undermined the dialogue process with India.”
New Delhi has sought to engage Pakistan’s civilian leadership and support its peace initiatives while demanding that Pakistan’s powerful military cut ties to militant groups that have carried out attacks in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.
Both Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan claim Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated region.
In Pakistan, the military largely calls the shots on relations with neighbours and internal security, in addition to defence.
The border incident comes after a botched suicide attack on an Indian consulate in Afghanistan at the weekend. Chellaney said the attacks underlined the threat to efforts to seek peace between the two neighbours, who are competing for influence in Afghanistan as Western troops prepare to withdraw in 2014.
An Indian army officer in Kashmir said the raid in January in which two soldiers were killed was carried out by Pakistan’s Border Action Team. The unit includes members of Pakistan’s commando Special Services Group and irregular forces like Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group.
The army sources blamed the Border Action Team for Tuesday’s attack.
“It looks like part of a pattern of sabotage activities carried out by war lobbies, by people who are not interested in peace, who are not interested in the normalisation of talks,” said Imtiaz Gul, a prominent Pakistani security analyst.
“These lobbies exist on both sides of the border. They strike whenever they think they need to sabotage any upcoming positive development.”
The killings caused an uproar in the Indian parliament as lawmakers demanded the government explain what happened.
A lasting peace between Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars since they were carved out of British colonial India in 1947, has long proved elusive. With many fearing an upsurge in conflict in Afghanistan after Western forces pull out next year, it is even more important for India and Pakistan to ratchet down tension, according to some analysts.
Defence Minister Antony said the number of infiltration attempts from the Pakistani side of Kashmir had doubled so far this year in comparison with January-August of 2012. There has also been an 80 percent increase in ceasefire violations over the same period, he said.
Indian military analysts have long feared that militant groups opposed to India would turn their focus to Kashmir once Western forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.