(Update: The State Department said Tuesday that the U.S. ambassadors to India and Pakistan “have raised these recent incidents with their respective host governments and conveyed our hope that India and Pakistan will continue the steps they have recently taken to improve their bilateral relationship.”)
(CNSNews.com) – Tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are at their highest point in several years, but a State Department spokeswoman could not say Monday whether Secretary of State John Kerry or anyone else in the administration had been in touch with the two governments to urge restraint.
As the South Asian neighbors prepare to mark their 67th independence day this week, each side accused the other of violating a ceasefire along the line of control (LoC), the de facto border separating the Indian- and Pakistani-administered sections of disputed Kashmir.
India’s defense minister, A.K. Antony, accused Pakistan on Monday of violating the ceasefire five times in three days, warning that the Indian Army had “the freedom to respond appropriately to the developing situation.”
Pakistan in turn accused India of “unprovoked” shelling across the LoC and said a civilian had been killed by a mortar shell. It said its troops had then retaliated. Whatever the sequence of events, the cross-border artillery fire continued for hours early on Monday morning.
The latest escalation began when five Indian soldiers were killed when raiders crossed the LoC on Aug. 6, just days Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government proposed restarting peace talks with India.
Antony initially said 20 terrorists had carried out the ambush, accompanied by “persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms.” But after a political uproar, including calls for his resignation – an election campaign is underway in India – he stated two days later that the attackers had included “specialist” Pakistani Army troops.
Antony, added for good measure that “nothing happens from [the] Pakistan side of the line of control without support, assistance, facilitation and often, direct involvement of the Pakistan Army.”
Islamabad heatedly denied the claims, but India has for years accused its neighbor of giving direct and indirect to jihadist groups fighting to eject India from Kashmir – claims that have regularly been corroborated by Western intelligence agencies and experts.
The military tensions sparked clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir during end-of-Ramadan Eid celebrations on Friday, prompting the army to enforce a curfew.
Islamic Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India have fought three full-scale wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. In 1999 the newly nuclear-declared nations came close to a fourth war when Pakistani troops and Kashmiri insurgents breached the LoC and occupied an Indian-controlled area at Kargil, triggering a three-month conflict. The most recent ceasefire agreement forged between the two was in November 2003.
Kerry visited India in late June and traveled to Pakistan two weeks ago. Asked Monday whether he had been in touch with either government over the fresh tensions, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she had “no secretary phone calls to read out for you.” (Kerry was in Colombia on Monday.)
In reply to a question about whether the administration had contacted the two to try to persuade them to talk to each other, she said, “I don’t have any updates for you on that or any details about communications to read out.”
Harf said the U.S. was concerned about any violence along the LoC and continued to “hope that India and Pakistan will continue the steps they have recently taken to improve their bilateral relations. Beyond that, I don’t have anything further except to reiterate what we’ve always said, that they need to keep taking steps to improve trust and improve their relationship.”
The State Department, which produces press releases daily on serious incidents around the world, issued none in connection with the LoC ambush or subsequent developments.
During his recent visit to Islamabad, Kerry during a TV interview expressed hope for “a significant easing of the tensions” between Pakistan and India, saying he thought Sharif was “very focused on trying to improve relationship with India.”
“I was in India a few weeks ago,” he added. “I think the Indians are very interested in having a better relationship with Pakistan.”
‘Overtures towards terrorists’
The deaths of the five Indian soldiers in last week’s ambush brought to nine the number killed in LoC ceasefire violations this year (two were killed in January, one in June and one died on Aug. 11 of wounds sustained in a cross-border firing on Aug. 5.)
By contrast, only one Indian soldier was killed in similar incidents last year, none in 2011, and two in 2010, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a project of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.
The SATP database also shows that out of 21 LoC terrorist infiltration attempts so far this year, 19 have occurred since July 1.
Citing such statistics, Institute for Conflict Management research fellow Ajit Kumar Singh said in an analysis Monday that the number of ceasefire violations and terrorist infiltration bids in Kashmir “have increased considerably” since Sharif returned to the premiership on June 5.
Sharif was prime minister during the ill-fated Kargil campaign in 1999, and some in India noted pointedly that the new flare-up occurred shortly after he returned to the position 14 years later. (Sharif later insisted he had no prior knowledge of the Kargil incursion, blaming the provocation on then army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Sharif was ousted in a Musharraf-led coup three months after the conflict, was imprisoned and later went into exile.)
“Sharif’s rhetoric on improving relations with India clearly fails to match up with developments on the ground,’ Singh wrote. “In this context, it is useful to re-examine his past misadventures as well as present overtures towards terrorist formations.”
Just two weeks after Sharif’s inauguration his party’s provincial government in Punjab – led by his brother, Shahbaz Sharif – allocated 61 million rupees (about $595,000) to Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), an ostensibly charitable organization that the State Department says is a front for Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT), a designated foreign terrorist organization.
LeT is one of the most active Pakistan-based jihadist groups, blamed by India for the 2008 terrorist assault in Mumbai that left 166 people dead, including six Americans; and by the U.S. for attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan.
A senior U.S. military officer has labeled it a “global threat” and the State Department last year issued a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of LeT/JuD founder Hafiz Mohammad Saeed.
Despite the reward offer Saeed moves freely and regularly appears in public – most recently on Friday, when he openly led an Eid rally in a Lahore stadium.
India accuses Saeed of masterminding the Mumbai attack, but Pakistan says there is no proof. Under pressure from India and the U.S. it did place under house arrest after the attack but refused to extradite him. In 2009 the Lahore High Court ordered his release, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court a year later.