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India and Pakistan cease-fire holds in Kashmir
( 2003-11-27 13:54) (Agencies)

Nuclear rivals India and Pakistan began a cease-fire on Wednesday along their frontier in the disputed Kashmir region, one of the world's most heavily militarized and volatile borders.

The new move to calm ties between the long-time foes, launched as Muslims on both sides celebrated their most important festival, Eid al-Fitr, appeared to be at least initially successful with both sides saying the cease-fire was holding.

Pakistani soldier Sher Jamal Khan (L) and Indian soldier D. K Sharma exchange gifts to mark Eid al-Fitr, at the India-Pakistan Wagah border crossing, Nov. 26, 2003.  [Reuters]
But analysts cautioned against reading too much into the agreement, noting that fighting usually slows during winter, while one of the main Islamic groups fighting in Kashmir said it would continue attacks in the Indian part of the territory.

"We haven't fired a single bullet, nor has there been any report that India has fired," said a Pakistani officer commanding the Chakothi sector, south of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir.

In Srinagar, the biggest city in Indian Kashmir, thousands of residents swarmed mosques to offer prayers and many said it was the most peaceful Eid they had seen in years.

"Oh Allah! return peace with dignity to our mother Kashmir," the chief mullah in a Srinagar mosque cried.

The Indian army said no firing had been reported since the cease-fire took effect at midnight Indian time on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir and positions on the Siachen glacier, the world's highest battleground.

Pakistan and India have gone to war three times since they were carved out of British colonial India in 1947, twice over Muslim-dominated Kashmir, which they both claim, where tens of thousands have died in a 14-year insurgency.

Prodded by the world outside, especially Washington, they have traded peace overtures this year having gone to the brink of a fourth war last year, but troops have continued to exchange fire almost daily along the 460 mile control line.


Analysts say the cease-fire will help improve the atmosphere ahead of an expected visit to Islamabad by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (news - web sites) for a regional summit in early January.

But India has so far rejected talks between Vajpayee and Pakistani leaders on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit, saying Islamabad must first stop helping militants in Kashmir, a charge Islamabad denies.

India's Defense Minister George Fernandes expressed hope the cease-fire would help the countries resolves their differences.

"There is reason to believe that this could take us to a point where we can find some solutions which have plagued us for some time," he told state-run Doordarshan television.

But Fernandes said security forces would continue cracking down on militants in Indian Kashmir.

"As far as terrorist activities of the militants are concerned, there isn't a cease-fire," he said. "They will be dealt as they should be. If there should be any infiltration it will be dealt in the same manner as it has been."

Residents in Srinagar also said there was much to do before a lasting peace.

"The cease-fire is a welcome step, but don't be under this impression that 55-year-old enemies will turn friends overnight. It will take its time," said Gulzar Ahmad, a local political analyst.

Salim Hashmi, spokesman for the pro-Pakistan Hezb-ul Mujahideen, one of the main militant groups fighting Indian rule, said it would continue attacks.

"The cease-fire is meaningless unless the Kashmir issue is addressed in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiris," he told Reuters in a telephone call from Rawalpindi, near Islamabad.

Only Tuesday evening, suspected militants ambushed a patrol in Indian Kashmir, killing an Indian soldier, Indian police said.

And hours before the border truce went into effect, Indian and Pakistani forces traded artillery and machine-gun fire, wounding three Pakistani children, Pakistani police said.

Once the cease-fire came into effect, however, border residents said it made for one of the most peaceful Eid holidays in over a decade.

"There is a complete lull on the line of control," said Ghulam Sarwar, superintendent of police in Muzaffarabad.

Both armies said they were committed to observing the cease-fire "in letter and spirit."

"We do hope that this cease-fire leads to a dialogue between the two countries that Pakistan has been asking for so often, and ultimately resolution of the Kashmir issue," said Pakistan military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan earlier.

However Ershad Mahmud of the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad said the cease-fire looked "more symbolic than substantive," while a Pakistani army officer, who did not want to be named, was not optimistic it would hold.

"It may not last long because we cannot trust the Indians," he said. "They may fire at any time on the pretext that there is some infiltration."

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