Shelling Ceases on Kashmir Highway
KARGIL, India (AP) _ Shelling across the Himalayas ceased today in Kashmir while Indian forces moved troops into position for a decisive sweep toward the frontier with Pakistan.
Hundreds of soldiers in snow boots and battle gear marched through the night Tuesday and Wednesday to reinforce troops holding heights recaptured from Islamic fighters since the fighting began in May, senior officers said.
Commanders said they believed the guerrillas had pulled back from most of their bunkered hide-outs. Field units reported seeing them crawling out of their positions, lugging whatever supplies they could.
India agreed Tuesday to halt airstrikes and heavy ground attacks to allow the forces that infiltrated from Pakistan to retreat back across the 1972 cease-fire line, known as the Line of Control.
Despite the agreement, Pakistani artillery shells and anti-aircraft gunfire pounded the only highway on the Indian side of the line, as they have done for weeks.
But not a single shell landed late Wednesday on the road that snakes through mountains and is the lifeline for northern Kashmir. Some officers said it could be a sign the withdrawal was complete in the Kaksar area, a grueling battlefield overlooking the highway.
``No shell this evening, not one,″ said a soldier posted at one of the checkpoints on a vulnerable stretch of the highway.
Indian battalions were scheduled to leave their forward positions at first light Friday and advance close to the positions the guerrillas have held for months.
Pakistan has denied that it agreed to a Friday deadline to evacuate all forces from Indian territory, a statement that surprised local Indian commanders.
``We will not go by what they say,″ said Brigadier Ramesh Kakar, commander of operations in the Mushkoh Valley. ``Whatsoever is not vacated will be vacated. We will push on Friday morning, right up to the Line of control.″
In Lahore, Pakistan, hundreds of women and children protested today against the government’s decision to ask guerrilla fighters to pull out from Kashmir and called for the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
``The holy war will continue until the liberation of Kashmir,″ one banner read. ``We reject Sharif’s sellout on Kargil,″ said another.
The rally was organized by the right-wing Islamic group Jamaat-i-Islami, which is closely linked with the Muslim guerrillas in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Indian army was girding to hold on to the recovered heights through the harsh winters. In past years, India abandoned those posts during the coldest months.
Engineers were blasting mountainsides and soldiers were clearing away rubble by hand to build new tracks through inaccessible areas up to the Line of Control, so Indian soldiers can be supplied with weapons, ammunition and food.
Indian newspapers have reported that the government is planning a special tax to collect up to $190 million to defray the costs of the fighting in Kashmir. But Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha squashed the rumors today, saying there were no plans for a tax.
India accused Pakistan of backing the incursion in an effort to move the 1972 cease-fire line. It said Pakistani troops were among the fighters that crossed into Indian-held territory.
Pakistan denied its soldiers were involved, saying the intruders were ``freedom fighters″ battling for Kashmir’s independence from India.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, two of them over Kashmir. An estimated 1,200 combatants have been killed in the last nine weeks.