Kashmir rebels say 17 Indian police die

JAMMU, India, AP

Pakistan-based Islamic militant groups claimed responsibility on Saturday for ambushing two police vehicles and killing 17 police in India-controlled Kashmir.

Abu Osama, a spokesman for the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, called reporters in India held Kashmir from Pakistan to say that the attack was carried out by four Pakistan-based guerrilla groups: Lashkar-e-Tayabba, Hezb ul Mujahedeen, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hezb-e-Islami.

Saleem Hashmi, a spokesman for the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, that the guerrilla commanders operating in India held Kashmir decide their targets.

“They inform us about their strikes and we tell it to the press,” Hashmi said.

Since the insurgency erupted in 1989, more than 30,000 people have been killed, according to the government. Human rights groups put the death toll at twice that.

India and Pakistan have fought two wars over control of Kashmir since they won independence from Britain in 1947. India holds two-thirds of Kashmir and Pakistan the remaining one-third. Both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety.

The militants fired rockets and heavy weapons at police on Friday near Manjakot, a village 200 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu-Kashmir state.

The police, riding in a jeep and a minibus, were returning from Manjakot after investigating the killing of two civilians on Thursday by suspected militants, a police officer said.

Police returned fire and the gunbattle lasted nearly two hours, the police officer said on condition of anonymity. Rebel casualties were not known.

Security forces found the bullet-riddled corpses of 12 police. Five wounded officers died in a hospital in Jammu, the officer said.

It was the first major strike by the guerrillas since Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last week extended a unilateral cease-fire for three months in the hope of pushing a peace dialogue to end the violence in Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region in Hindu-majority India. The rebel groups rejected the truce and intensified attacks on Indian security forces.

Jammu-Kashmir’s top elected official, Farooq Abdullah, condemned Friday’s attack, saying it was another attempt to sabotage the federal government’s peace overture.