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India Pounds Himalayan Guerrillas

July 1, 1999

DRAS, India (AP) _ Indian fighter jets and artillery struck Islamic guerrillas on the Himalayan mountaintops today, helping ground troops inch toward the main promontory overlooking a strategic frontier highway in disputed Kashmir.

It was the fourth night of airstrikes aimed at preventing the guerrillas _ which India claims are backed by Pakistan _ from resting or reorganizing, said Squadron Leader R.K. Dhingra, an air force spokesman in New Delhi.

The round-the-clock airstrikes accompanied the fiercest fighting in seven weeks between Indian soldiers and entrenched Islamic fighters, causing scores of deaths on both sides. India says the opposing fighters are Pakistani soldiers and Afghan mercenaries who crossed the 1972 cease-fire line that divides Kashmir between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Pakistan has said its troops are engaged only in retaliatory shelling and have not crossed the cease-fire line.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Raminder Singh Jassal told reporters in New Delhi that India has rejected a Pakistani suggestion that top military officials from the two countries meet. They have spoken on the phone during the fighting, Jassal said, but India is sticking to its policy of no formal talks until the guerrillas have withdrawn or been evicted.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Vladimir Rakhmanin was quoted today as saying Moscow would mediate if both sides asked for help. But while Pakistan has suggested mediation, India has rejected it.

Under cover of darkness, Indian infantry moved forward early today, firing machine-guns and automatic rifles as they crawled up a slope adjoining the main target, the 16,500-foot Tiger Hill, field commanders said. They reported close-quarters combat during the night.

The Indian troops hid behind boulders as artillery shells from above exploded around them. Indian ground units fired Milan bunker-busting missiles and rockets at four-foot thick concrete fortresses on the peak.

Col. S.V.E. David, deputy commander of the brigade in Dras, said Indian troops found three paybooks of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry regiment, a soldier’s identification card and six badges on the mountainside after the battle.

Near the front-line town of Kargil, Indian soldiers fired 155 mm shells from Bofors howitzers today at two air defense batteries overlooking National Highway 1.

India’s minister responsible for internal security, Lal Krishna Advani, appeared to play down the possibility of a wider war. ``Indian forces have successfully pushed the intruders to the wall ... Pakistan’s game plan has been defeated completely,″ he said.

Justifying the slow pace of army action, he said, ``We can free the ... area in days but that would mean an enormous cost vis-a-vis manpower.″

Indian army briefer Col. Bikram Singh said in New Delhi today that 207 soldiers have been killed, 389 wounded and nine are missing. He said 439 intruders have been killed and more wounded. Indian officers say at least 700 Islamic fighters are still on the mountaintops.

India and Pakistan both claim all of Kashmir, which has been divided since their independence from Britain in 1947. The territory has been the focus of two of the three wars between the India and Pakistan.

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