Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 5 News List

India launches unprecedented security operation for pilgrimage to Kashmir

BALANCING ACT About 20,000 security personnel will protect about 100,000 Muslim pilgrims traveling to a revered cave in the region between India and Pakistan


As the first of 100,000 Hindu pilgrims start their trek to a holy cave in troubled Kashmir, Indian security forces are rushing to make sure all roads are off-limits to Islamic rebels who have attacked the procession in the past.

While this year's pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave comes at a time of relative hope in Kashmir -- as India and Pakistan, which are bitterly divided over the Himalayan territory, inch towards dialogue -- sporadic violence continues and security forces are taking no chances.

With 20,000 security personnel on hand for the pilgrimage, there will be roughly one troop for every five pilgrims.

For T.K. Mahapatra, commander of one of many Border Security Force paramilitary companies checking roads for the pilgrimage, the coming days are crucial.

The first batch of pilgrims will leave the winter capital Jammu today and three days later reach the cave, which Hindus believe is an abode of the god Shiva.

The 32km trek to the cave shrine from Chandanwari, the most common start point, involves a rugged and icy route -- a two-day walk that can be hard on both pilgrims and security personnel.

"Given the past attacks my boys are always on the look-out for suspects," Mahapatra said.

The pilgrimage, which lasts until Aug. 12, is one of the most high-security events in Indian-administered Kashmir, where tens of thousands have died since 1989 in an insurgency against Indian rule.

Last year, eight people were killed and 27 wounded in an attack by alleged Islamic militants at the base camp at Nunwan, 19km from Chandanwari.

Troops were deployed on June 2 and will not be withdrawn until eight days after the end of the pilgrimage.

Mahapatra and his troops begin each day at dawn looking for mines or other explosives on the picturesque but treacherous 7km stretch from Frislar to Pahalgam, another start point for devotees.

Vehicles carrying pilgrims are allowed to move from the Nunwan base camp only after clearance by the security force.

A report prepared by Munir Khan, the police chief of Anantnag district which includes the cave-shrine, has identified areas considered potential targets where pickets have been set up.

The document says rebels may be planning to attack using special magnets which can be attached with explosives to moving vehicles.

"Therefore all vehicles will need checking," Khan advised in the report.

Places to watch out for, according to Khan, include busy markets, campsites and local bus stations.

"For this, patrolling, including by policemen in civvies, needs to be intensified at these places," said Khan.

The Indian army has been put in charge of general security for the area and will monitor the situation from the hilltops. It will have troops ready in case of emergency.

"Providing security to the pilgrims is a huge task," says D.S. Chandel, deputy commandant of the federal Central Reserve Police Force in Chandanwari.

"Our motive is to provide safety, security and comfort to the pilgrims," Chandel said in his makeshift tent office, near two fast-flowing streams.

His force has set up metal detectors to prevent arms and ammunition being carried in. The federal police will also frisk pilgrims, search their belongings and maintain order within their camps.

"We are trying to put in place fool-proof security to ensure an incident-free pilgrimage," Chandel said.

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