Vajpayee Heads for Kashmir Front, War Fears Grow

By Y.P. Rajesh

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's prime minister headed for the front lines in Kashmir on Wednesday after the killing of a separatist leader and fresh border clashes with Pakistan in the disputed state fuelled fears of war between the two neighbours.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who arrived in India's only Muslim-majority state on Tuesday, left the winter capital of Jammu for Srinagar, where a defence official said he would board a helicopter immediately to go to the front to address soldiers.

With the two nuclear-armed nations trading blame over Tuesday's killing of Abdul Gani Lone, a moderate in the Kashmiri separatist camp, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was due to meet his cabinet and top security officials in Islamabad.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, highlighting a threat of war between the South Asian rivals, said he would visit the region next week, and urged the international community to act to defuse the crisis.

"The possibility of war between India and Pakistan is real and very disturbing," Straw said in London. "This is a crisis the world cannot ignore."

Underscoring growing international concern, Indian and Pakistani forces traded sporadic fire in Kashmir overnight and one woman was wounded in machinegun and small-arms exchanges, an Indian defence spokesman told Reuters.

There was also intermittent mortar firing in three areas along the ceasefire line dividing the Himalayan region, he said.

The killing of Lone in Srinagar, summer capital of the state, was expected to overshadow Vajpayee's three-day visit to a region that has been the cause of two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since independence in 1947.

Residents and political groups said Vajpayee could be greeted by a general strike in the main city in the Kashmir Valley.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir's main separatist alliance of which Lone was a leader, called the strike, saying it wanted to protest against human rights violations in the state.

Lone's funeral was to held on Wednesday but the location of the ceremony had yet to be decided, family members said.


Indian and Pakistani forces have exchanged heavy mortar and machinegun fire across their border in
Kashmir since last Friday, forcing hundreds of villagers to move to safety.

Officials reported a total of nine deaths on Tuesday, including civilians. Each side blames the other for the firing.

The two neighbours have massed up to a million troops, backed by fighter jets, missiles and tanks, on their border since India blamed Pakistan-based Kashmiri militants for a suicide raid on India's national parliament last December.

Tension rose sharply last week when Muslim rebels battling Indian rule in Kashmir raided an army camp, killing more than 30 people, many of them soldiers' wives and children.

Straw will be followed by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who is expected in the region in early June.

The European Union has voiced deep concern with EU president Spain urging both countries to do all they could to avoid "a spiral of confrontation".

Unidentified gunmen shot dead Lone at a public meeting in Srinagar as Vajpayee arrived in Jammu.

Some Indian leaders blamed Pakistan-based Muslim guerrillas fighting New Delhi's rule in Kashmir for Lone's killing.

Pakistan blamed India's "occupying forces" in Kashmir while an alliance of Kashmiri guerrilla groups said it was the work of Indian intelligence agencies.

Lone, 70, was seen as a moderate in the Hurriyat, a disparate alliance of separatists whose aspirations range from greater autonomy for Kashmir to joining Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the killing and called it a "terrorist act".

India has long accused Pakistan of stoking revolt against its rule in Kashmir. Pakistan denies the
charge and in January Musharraf promised to prevent anyone using his country as a base for militant
attacks on targets abroad.

Since October 1947, when the then Hindu ruler of Kashmir decided to join mainly Hindu India rather than Islamic Pakistan, the region has fuelled rivalry between the two countries.

India, which holds 45 percent of Kashmir, considers it an integral part of its territory.

Pakistan, which controls a third of the area, demands implementation of a 1948 U.N. Security Council
resolution calling for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people.

China holds the remainder of Kashmir, which has around 13 million people -- some 77 percent of them Muslims