August 2, 2000
Suspected Islamic guerrillas opposed to a cease-fire in Kashmir carried out seven attacks that killed 84 people in less than 24 hours in the territory disputed by India and Pakistan, police said Wednesday. In the first and worst attack, gunmen opened fire Tuesday evening on unarmed Hindu pilgrims and Muslim porters on their way to a religious shrine at Pahalgam, 55 miles south of Kashmir's summer capital Srinagar.
Officials said the death toll rose to 32 on Wednesday morning, with 41 injured. "We had seen this only in the movies," said G.L. Atri, a devotee who saw the killings. "Four people were killed in front of me." Since then, 52 more people were killed in six other attacks going into Wednesday morning. They came as the Indian government prepared to talk to the main guerrilla group to end violence in Kashmir, where more than 25,000 people have died during an 11-year Islamic insurgency.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed the attacks on Pakistan-backed guerrilla groups, saying it was in reprisal for the cease-fire declared the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen guerrillas. "It is clear that after Hezb-ul Mujahedeen's step and talks of a cease-fire, militant groups directed by Pakistan have decided to step up the attacks," Vajpayee told the lower house of Parliament.
Pakistan condemned the killing of civilians, but its foreign ministry said it could not rule out that Indian forces were involved "to malign the Kashmiri freedom struggle internationally."
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, which they both claim in its entirety. Two-thirds of Kashmir is controlled by India, and the rest is controlled by Pakistan.
Saleem Hashmi, a spokesman of the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen in Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, said none of the militant groups could be involved. "No mujahedeen (holy warriors) group can kill civilians. Whosoever has done it we condemn it," he said.
Gunmen killed 12 people in the Hindu-dominated village of Pogal on Wednesday morning, said Police Inspector-General S.P. Vaid in Jammu, the state's winter capital about 110 miles to the north. He said the militants first killed two Hindus in the adjoining village of Danvata.
Villagers armed by the government fought back militants in an attack in the village of Keyar, but the guerrillas returned to kill eight villagers in the remote, densely forested area, Vaid said. In Kalaroos, 60 miles north of Srinagar, armed men killed five family members in the home of a special police officer, a member of a civilian unit armed and trained by the state government to fight militants.
There were three attacks Tuesday evening. Attackers swooped on the Mir Bazar village near Anantnag, forcing people out of their homes, then lining up men and shooting them dead, said police in Srinagar, 25 miles to the north. Eighteen people were killed, the Press Trust of India reported. Those killed were workers at a brick factory who had migrated from other Indian states, police said.
In Achchabal, about nine miles from Anantnag, militants stormed into houses and killed seven migrant laborers, said Vaid. The dead and injured in the first attack included many Muslim porters and men who hire horses that carry pilgrims up the steep slopes to the Amarnath cave, a religious site for Hindus in the mountains that takes two days to reach.
Police suspected the attackers were Islamic guerrillas fighting for Kashmir's independence from India. Some witnesses, however, said that many were killed by the soldiers and by members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force and men wearing khaki uniforms like the Kashmir police.
"I saw two men in a Kashmir police uniform who started firing from a bridge and on the bus. I saw two Hindu priests killed before me, and two other men," bus driver Balbir Singh, who had brought pilgrims to Pahalgam, told The Associated Press.
India's government is trying to negotiate with guerrilla groups, notably the Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen, which announced a unilateral cease-fire July 17. It was followed by the Indian army's announcement Friday that it would cease offensive operations against the guerrillas.
But up to a dozen other rebel groups, some of whom want Kashmir merged with Pakistan, have opposed the peace moves, saying it is necessary to fight for independence. Harkat-ul Mujahedeen, a group that rejects the cease-fire, said Indian soldiers killed civilians to defame the groups.