By Ross Colvin
India for the first time directly accused the Pakistan army of involvement in an ambush that killed five Indian soldiers, and hinted on Thursday at retaliation for possibly the worst such attack since the neighbours signed a ceasefire in 2003.
Pakistan has strongly denied involvement in the early Tuesday ambush and struck a conciliatory tone in response to India’s latest accusations, saying it was imperative for the two countries to restore the ceasefire on the disputed Kashmir border.
“This incident will have consequences on our behaviour on the Line of Control and for our relations with Pakistan,” Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony told parliament, referring to the de facto border dividing the disputed Himalayan territory.
“It is now clear that specialist troops of Pakistan army were involved in this attack,” Antony said, offering the Indian government’s strongest statement to date on the attack.
Six soldiers on patrol near their base about 450 metres (yards) from the Line of Control were ambushed and five were shot dead and one was wounded, Indian army officials said.
While tit-for-tat shelling and machinegun fire is common along the disputed border, cross-border attacks by troops are rare.
On Thursday, a Pakistani civilian was wounded in cross-border firing in Kashmir, the Pakistani military said, accusing Indian forces of “unprovoked” shooting. There was no immediate comment from the Indian military.
Antony’s accusation was significant as in his first comments on the incident, on Tuesday, he had been careful not to directly implicate the Pakistani army and had referred instead to militants accompanied by “persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms”.
In a statement issued by the Pakistani foreign ministry, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he was still looking forward to meeting his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
“During the meeting, we will discuss steps to further build trust and consolidate this relationship,” Sharif was quoted as saying.
“The prime minister further said that it is incumbent upon the leadership of both sides not to allow the situation to drift and to take steps to improve the atmosphere by engaging constructively with a view to building trust and confidence.”
Singh’s government has been quietly working with Islamabad to relaunch stalled peace talks, possibly as early as this month. Islamabad has also been pushing for the meeting between Singh and Sharif in New York – a proposal New Delhi has said it is considering.
Indian government officials said on Thursday no decision had been taken on resuming the peace talks at a senior bureaucrat level or on the proposed meeting between the prime ministers.
India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the government of trying to play down the attack and of being too soft on Pakistan, a damaging accusation ahead of what is expected to be a closely fought election, due by next May.
“They wanted to preserve their relations with Pakistan but they ended up with egg on their faces,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank in New Delhi.
The BJP caused a ruckus in parliament this week, blocking efforts by the ruling party to discuss long-pending economic reforms or the government’s signature initiative to hugely expand a vote-winning scheme to give cheap food to the poor.
Facing rising political heat and a paralysed parliament, the government indicated it could revise its statement after the chief of the army visited the area of the attack on Wednesday.
“We all know that nothing happens from (the) Pakistan side of the Pakistan Line of Control without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan army,” Antony said in his statement to parliament on Thursday.
Indian army officials have said the attack was carried out by Pakistan’s Border Action Team. The unit includes members of Pakistan’s commando Special Services Group and irregular forces including members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group, the army officers said.
“Our restraint should not be taken for granted, nor should the capacity of armed forces and resolve of the government to uphold the sanctity of the Line of Control ever be doubted,” Antony said.
The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars since becoming independent from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. But defence analysts have said they do not expect the latest incident to trigger a major retaliation from India.
Relations between the two neighbours have been showing sign of improvement in the past year after souring in 2008 when Pakistan-based gunmen attacked India’s financial capital of Mumbai, killing 166 people.