Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Kashmir militants die after nighttime attack on barracks

AP , SRINAGAR, INDIA

Two nighttime raiders killed five soldiers and forced 200 of them to flee their hotel barracks on a tourist island in Kashmir's Dal Lake, but the troops -- some of them in rowboats -- later surrounded and killed the militants in gunbattles before daybreak, officials said.

The overnight clashes also left five of the paramilitary soldiers wounded, but none of the tourists and other civilians at the popular site were hurt, police Inspector-General S.S. Rawat said.

Visitors who have returned to the stunning Himalayan landscape of Indian-controlled Kashmir this year after a long lull said their vacations would continue despite the violence.

The two suspected Islamic militants crept into the camp -- a commandeered hotel on a small island in the scenic lake -- late on Tuesday and started firing in the dark, scattering the 200 paramilitary soldiers based there.

The soldiers later surrounded the post, with some of the troops in the lake in rowboats, and an overnight gunbattle killed one of the militants.

About 100 of the soldiers stormed the hotel at dawn, killing the remaining militant, Rawat said.

More than a dozen Islamic guerrilla groups have been fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir for the Himalayan region's independence or its merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan. At least 65,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in 14 years of fighting.

But since separatists are holding peace talks with the Indian government for the first time, and following the start of negotiations between India and Pakistan late last year, thousands of visitors have flocked back to the region, even though attacks continue.

Dal Lake is a huge tourist attraction in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu-Kashmir state, and yesterday tourists came to take gondola rides despite the overnight fighting.

"I'm not scared at all," said Sarita Kaur, from northern Punjab state. "I have three days to spend here and I am going to make the most of it."

Surinder Bali from New Delhi and his two young children spent a terrifying night in their houseboat, less than 100m from the fighting.

"We were very scared," Bali said. "But the houseboat owner sat up with us all night to comfort us, and now we are going off to see the Mughal Gardens," he said, referring to picturesque medieval-era gardens near the lake.

Late on Tuesday, militants rowed to the island, crept into the hotel and opened fire.

Such fedayeen, or suicide attacks, on camps are a common tactic by rebels in Kashmir. Security forces are trained to vacate the camp, surround it and retaliate.

This time, the response was delayed while soldiers sought rowboats to surround the island.

The rebels "have not been identified yet," Rawat said.

"The operation was clean but it was prolonged because we wanted least [sic] civilian casualties. No civilian casualty has taken place," he said.

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