As Pakistan-India tensions flare, a child mistakes a bomb for a toy

A relative displays the picture of 4-year-old Mohammad Ayan Ali, who, according to his family, was killed after he found a device that looked like a toy and exploded in his hands at home in the village of Jabri, in Neelum Valley, in Pakistan-administrated Kashmir. Pakistan's military says the device was an unexploded cluster bomb.. REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

By Saad Sayeed

JABRI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Deep in the mountains of the Neelum Valley, where a river separates India and Pakistani Kashmir, is the small village of Jabri, usually far enough away to avoid being hit by exchanges of fire between the countries’ armies.

That changed late last month when Indian artillery shells hit the village and an unexploded device found its way into the hands of four-year-old Ayan Ali.

“He found a bomb that looked like a toy and he brought it here,” said Ali’s uncle, Abdul Qayyum, pointing to their home.

Ali showed the “toy” to his siblings as the family sat down to breakfast. It exploded, killing Ali and wounding eight of his siblings, his mother, and a young cousin.

“They tried to snatch it from him and then it exploded. He died on the spot,” Qayyum said, adding that two of the children are in hospital in critical condition.

Pakistan’s military said the device was a cluster bomb, a weapon that releases many smaller bomblets that can kill or wound people over a wider area. They are prohibited under the Geneva Convention governing international warfare.

The Indian government and army denied the allegation, and two army officials told Reuters that its shelling across the border was proportionate and in response to Pakistani fire.

On a visit to the Jabri area on Friday, a Reuters journalist was unable to independently verify the type of device that killed Ali, though there were signs of damage in the home.

A small crater in the concrete floor marked the place where Ali was standing when the device exploded.

“The little kids were playing and then there was a loud sound. There was smoke everywhere, I couldn’t see anything,” said Sadaf Siddiq, Ali’s older sister.

A shell hit another nearby home, opening a large hole in the roof but nobody inside was injured, said its 37-year-old owner Muhammad Hanif.

The Pakistan military said they had cleared a number of unexploded devices from the area. One military official showed a toy-sized device that he said was part of a cluster bomb, which could not be independently verified by Reuters.

Cross border exchanges of fire have intensified in recent years and India and Pakistan accuse each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border in the disputed Kashmir region.

Tensions increased this week after India set a new policy to revoke Jammu and Kashmir state’s rights to set its own laws, arrested hundreds of political leaders and activists, and severed nearly all communications from Indian Kashmir.

Both countries claim Kashmir and have fought two of their three wars over the Himalayan region, which they have disputed since partition and independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Martin Howell and Darren Schuettler)

India jails three for life after shocking child rape and murder

Sanji Ram, one of the convicted in the case of rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, leaves the court in Pathankot, in the northern state of Punjab, India, June 10, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

By Manoj Kumar

PATHANKOT, India (Reuters) – A court in north India jailed three men for life on Monday over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl that stirred nationwide outrage and religious rivalries.

The case illustrated India’s appalling record on violence against women and children, and drew criticism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after some members criticized police for pressing charges.

“This is a victory of truth,” said prosecution lawyer M Farooqi after the convictions.

“The girl and her family have got justice today.”

The girl, from a nomadic Muslim community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January 2018.

The prosecution had sought the death penalty for the three men – including a Hindu priest – who received life sentences.

Three other men, all police officers, received five-year terms for destroying evidence.

The abduction, rape and killing of the child was part of a plan to remove the minority community from the area, the 15-page charge sheet said.

APPEAL PLANNED

In a 432-page judgment, the court also levied fines of 150,000 rupees ($2,150) on the three men given life terms – priest Sanji Ram, Deepak Khajuria and Parvesh Kumar.

The policemen – Surinder Kumar, Tilak Raj and Anand Dutta – were also fined 50,000 rupees ($718) each.

Defense lawyer Vikram Mahajan said all six would appeal.

The case shocked India and prompted parliament to adopt the death penalty for rapists of girls younger than 12.

The trial began in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir state more than a year ago, but India’s Supreme Court shifted it to Pathankot in neighboring Punjab state after the girl’s family and lawyer said they faced death threats.

Lawyers and Hindu politicians, including some from the ruling BJP, had also held protests against the charges.

Women and children in India have long been subjected to violence. Reported rapes climbed 60 percent to 40,000 from 2012 to 2016, government figures show, which officials attribute to more women coming forward due to greater public awareness.

However, many more cases still go unreported, especially in rural areas, because of the fear of social consequences and lack of trust in police.

Of eight people accused in the girl’s case, one man identified only as Vishal was to be freed after being found not guilty, defense lawyers said.

The last, a juvenile, awaits trial.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Writing by Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Andrew Cawthorne)

Deadly encounters: the night the Indian army arrived in a village in south Kashmir

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, displays a photo of his brother Hilal with Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani national, both members of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who were killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Fayaz Bukhari and Alasdair Pal

PINGLAN, India/SRINAGAR (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indian soldiers descended on the picturesque village of Pinglan, which is surrounded by south Kashmir’s apple and apricot orchards, just before midnight on February 17.

By the time they left 18 hours later, one civilian, three armed militants, and five members of the security forces were dead, a row of houses was reduced to rubble, an unexploded missile had been planted in a rice paddy, and more than 120 villagers had sought treatment for exposure to tear gas, alleged beatings, and in some cases mental trauma.

Reuters spent two days in Pinglan, which has a population of about 6,400, about a month after the crackdown to piece together what happened during those hours.

Interviews with more than 60 eyewitnesses indicate that soldiers forced at least four villagers to act as human shields. That meant sending them first into a building where armed militants might be hiding, often using a phone to take video could be viewed by nearby soldiers.

Human rights lawyers say such tactics – which are meant to deter militants from firing on soldiers carrying out the raids – are highly questionable and could even be a war crime under international law.

But they would not be illegal under Indian law.

“(The) Indian army has never used civilians as human-shields,” said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mohit Vaishnava, in response to requests for comment.

However, he said that during encounters, local people are sometimes asked to mediate between the army and militants.

The armed insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir is one of the world’s longest-running. Nearly 50,000 have died as a result of the conflict in the last three decades, according to official figures.

The number of active militants had dwindled to a few dozen a few years ago. But after a 2016 uprising following the killing of a militant leader, growing numbers of young men, predominantly Kashmiris, are joining their ranks. India blames its arch-rival Pakistan for funding these groups, a claim Islamabad denies.

PARADISE LOST

Both countries claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part, and have fought three wars – two over the territory. Now nuclear powers, they came close to another war when a suicide car bomber, a local Kashmiri, killed 40 Indian paramilitary police on February 14 on a highway near Pinglan. The Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility.

That attack sparked a huge crackdown by Indian forces as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave troops a “free hand” to respond.

Since the suicide attack, hundreds of separatists have been arrested, and dozens of militants and civilians killed in what the authorities term “encounters”.

On February 17, from about 11:30 p.m., three days after the suicide attack, security forces cordoned off all the roads leading into Pinglan and began going house-to-house.

An army informant in the village had heard of the presence of militants, according to an army officer Reuters interviewed who is familiar with some operational details of the encounter.

Fifteen-year-old Muninah Amin said the army knocked on her door, telling her family their house was to be searched.

When Amin protested, she said an army major told her to be quiet.

“You should become a sarpanch (village head), you talk so much,” he said, pointing his gun at her.

Troops from the 55th Battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles demanded her father, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, come out to help them, Amin said. They were surrounding a separate small building on the family’s property and needed Bhat to search it for them.

Gunfire from an unknown source strafed their house, breaking upstairs windows, and the remaining family members hid on the ground floor. By the time they were moved by the army into the house of a neighbor, Bhat was dead, a soldier informed them.

“They only told us he died in the crossfire,” said Amin, whose account of the evening was corroborated by her mother, Nusrat.

HOSTILE TO INDIA

The army is yet to provide any further information on how he died, Amin said.

“We asked for information but they did not give it to us,” she said. “They hid what happened.”

Vaishnava said the army did all it could to minimize civilian casualties, but the militants often hid in populated areas in order to increase the civilian death toll.

Residents interviewed in Pinglan were almost all openly hostile to India and its soldiers.

Still, many people said the village had not seen armed confrontation between militants and troops for decades. 

Amin’s account of Bhat being taken by the army to search a building was consistent with testimony of three other people, all of whom told Reuters they were forced to perform similar tasks.

A teenager, who said he was 17 and gave his name as Jibran, said he was one of a dozen mainly young men, who were taken from their homes to an armored personnel carrier where they were held and then sent out to search houses. His account was corroborated by his grandfather and aunt.

“They gave me a shield and they said you have to move forward to search the houses,” he said. “I felt in danger.”

Bhat’s brother, Shafqat Ahmad Bhat, said he was also held by the army and sent to search a house and film it on a mobile phone near the end of the encounter.

Shafqat, along with half a dozen other villagers, said they were beaten by troops using rifle butts, sticks and other weapons.

“They put a stone in my mouth to keep me quiet because I was screaming so much,” Shafqat said.

While many of the injuries sustained by those who said they had been attacked were minor, Bhat family neighbor Shahzada Akhtar said she was repeatedly struck on the face with a shoe by a soldier and needed “medical treatment.”

Her account was corroborated by Rayees Ul-Hamid, a medical officer at Pinglan’s health center.

Vaishnava said the allegations of disproportionate use of force by the army were “baseless, bereft of evidence and likely to have been made by terrorised people under duress from the perpetrators.”

THE MILITANT

Of the three militants killed in the encounter, two were Pakistani. The other, Hilal Ahmad Naikoo, was a local. He ran a successful medical laboratory and was well-liked in the village, according to interviews with his family and others.

His brother, Bilal, said Hilal joined JeM after the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu, Kashmir state in January 2018. Six people, including two policemen, are standing trial for the rape and murder while two other policemen have been accused of destroying evidence.

In October, Hilal returned for a visit home carrying a gun and accompanied by Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani believed by security forces to be one of Jaish’s top commanders, said Bilal. Bhai was also killed in the Pinglan encounter, security forces said.

Bilal was in the village that night, and heard the sound of gunfire from his house. But the first he knew of Hilal’s involvement was when his death was announced on TV.

Hilal and Bhat were buried next to each other in an ancient village graveyard that is now reserved for those killed by Indian troops. The JeM flag is draped over the railings.

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

The wider hostility of the villagers to Indian forces was on display the morning after their arrival in Pinglan. Dozens of people threw stones at security services, eyewitnesses said. 

Troops responded with a volley of tear gas and stun grenades.

“The air was thick with smoke, it was like a fog,” said Abdul Rahman, sifting through discarded gas shells that litter the side of the road near his house.

At 3 pm, soldiers moved a group of local journalists who had managed to enter the encounter site to the edge of the village.

Shortly after, several eyewitnesses said they saw plumes of smoke coming from the courtyard where most of the fighting had taken place.

“The Indian forces destroyed our house without any reason,” Mushtaq Ahmed, a shopkeeper, told Reuters, standing among heaps of rubble and charred timber where his house used to stand.

“No house was deliberately set on fire by security forces,” said Vaishnava, the military spokesman, blaming it on the militants.

THE AFTERMATH

The encounter was over and the soldiers were starting to move out of the village, but at about 6 p.m. troops had one last job for Shafqat Ahmad Bhat.

“They asked me to pick up an unexploded shell, dig a hole in the ground and bury it there,” he said.

He led Reuters to a nearby rice paddy and pointed to a waterlogged crater where he said he buried the unexploded mortar used in the army operation.

After visiting the site on March 21, a Reuters journalist told the authorities about the mortar. A day later, bomb disposal experts from the army and police got rid of the rocket in a controlled explosion, a local official and witnesses said.

“There was a huge explosion. The earth shook,” said Bilal Ahmed, an eyewitness.

Vaishnava denied the soldiers had forced a civilian to bury unexploded ordnance.

A fragile peace has returned to the village. The first apricot blossom of the season is beginning to bloom, while mynah birds chirp overhead.

But the trauma from the encounter has lingered.

Wuli Mohammed Naik, the grandfather of Jibran, the boy made to search houses, was one of many who said he was afraid to go out after dark.

“A man who is bitten by a snake is afraid of rope,” he said.

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Pinglan and Alasdair Pal in Srinagar; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Pakistan tells China of ‘deteriorating situation’ in Indian Kashmir

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi attend a meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, March 19, 2019. Andrea Verdelli/Pool via REUTERS

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” and rights violations in Indian Kashmir, and called for India to look again at its policies there.

India launched an air strike on a militant camp inside Pakistan last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir.

The Feb. 14 attack that killed at least 40 paramilitary police was the deadliest in Kashmir’s 30-year-long insurgency, escalating tension between the neighbors, and the subsequent air strike had heightened fears that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan could slide into a fourth war.

Speaking in Beijing standing alongside the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, Qureshi said his country appreciated the role China played once again “in standing by Pakistan in these difficult times”.

“I also briefed the foreign minister on the rapidly deteriorating situation on the Indian side of Kashmir, intensification of human rights violations, especially after Pulwama,” he said, referring to where the attack took place.”This is a concern because that leads to a reaction and that reaction at times creates tensions in the region which must be avoided,” Qureshi added.

“I think there’s a need for a new assessment on how the situation on the Indian side of Kashmir should be handled by the Indians. There are now voices within India that are questioning the efficacy of the policy that they’ve followed for the last so many years,” he said, without elaborating.

Wang, who is also China’s foreign minister, said China has always believed that peace and stability in South Asia is in the joint interests of countries in the region and is what the international community wishes.

“China appreciates Pakistan’s constructive efforts to ease the situation and calls on Pakistan and India to continue to exercise restraint and resolve the differences that exist via dialogue and peaceful means.”

The sparring after the Pulwama attack had threatened to spiral out of control and only interventions by U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, headed off a bigger conflict, five sources familiar with the events have told Reuters.

At one stage, India threatened to fire at least six missiles at Pakistan, and Islamabad said it would respond with its own missile strikes “three times over”, said Western diplomats and government sources in New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington.

A Pakistani minister said China and the United Arab Emirates also intervened to lessen tension between the South Asian neighbors.

In a faxed statement to Reuters late on Monday, responding to a question on China’s role in reining in the crisis, its foreign ministry said peaceful coexistence between Pakistan and India was in everyone’s interest.

“As a friendly neighbor of both India and Pakistan, China pro-actively promoted peace talks and played a constructive role in easing the tense situation,” it said.

“Some other countries also made positive efforts in this regard,” the ministry added.

China is willing to work with the international community to continue to encourage the neighbors to meet each other half way and use dialogue and peaceful means to resolve differences, it said, without elaborating.

China and Pakistan call each other “all-weather” friends, but China has also been trying to improve ties with New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in China last year agreeing to reset relations, and Xi is expected to visit India sometime this year, diplomatic sources say.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore)

Factbox: So far apart – India and Pakistan engage in war of claim, counter-claim

FILE PHOTO: People hold national flags and placards as they celebrate after Indian authorities said their jets conducted airstrikes on militant camps in Pakistani territory, in New Delhi, India, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An air strike by Indian warplanes inside Pakistan last week, and a subsequent retaliatory attack by the Pakistani air force, pushed the nuclear-armed neighbors to the brink of another war, but also triggered a fight over the truth about events.

Below is a look at claims and counter claims from both sides. They disagree on most aspects.

PULWAMA ATTACK

The escalation in tension came after a suicide car bombing killed 40 paramilitary troops in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region also claimed by Pakistan, on Feb. 14.

India blames Pakistan for the attack, which was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), and says it has provided Pakistan with proof.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Feb. 27 that a dossier was handed over to Pakistan with “specific details of JeM complicity in Pulwama terror attack and the presence of JeM terror camps and its leadership in Pakistan”.

Pakistan has denied the accusation, saying it had nothing to do with the Pulwama bombing, which came right before a high-profile visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad on Feb. 17.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament on Feb. 28: “We had such an important visit of the Saudi crown prince coming up. We knew that they would invest, there were contracts. Which country would sabotage such an important event by conducting a terror attack?”

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), chant slogans as they celebrate, after Pakistan shot down two Indian military aircrafts, in Lahore, Pakistan February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

AIR STRIKE IMPACT

India said its warplanes struck a JeM training camp near the Pakistani town of Balakot in the early hours of Feb. 26, acting on intelligence that the militant group was planning another suicide attack.

“In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated,” India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said in a briefing after the air strike. Fidayeen is a term used to describe Islamist militants willing to fight to the death.

Pakistan acknowledged that Indian jets had crossed into its territory, but denied they had hit anything substantial. Under forced hasty withdrawal, Indian aircraft “released payload which had free fall in open area. No infrastructure got hit, no casualties”, the Pakistan military spokesman, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said in a tweet.

In New Delhi, a senior government official told reporters that at least 300 militants had been killed, although India’s defense forces have since said they are unable to provide any detail on the number of casualties.

“We hit our target,” the chief of the Indian air force (IAF), B.S. Dhanoa, said on Monday. “The air force doesn’t calculate casualty numbers, the government does that.”

F-16 INVOLVEMENT

On Feb. 27, Pakistan said its air force had locked on to six targets in Indian-administered Kashmir in retaliation for the Indian air strikes the day before. It said it did this to show it could strike key targets but said its pilots deliberately dropped their bombs in open country without causing damage. It said its aircraft did not enter Indian airspace.

Pakistan said it had downed two Indian jets, one of which came down in Pakistani-held territory and the other on the Indian side of the border. It said it had captured two Indian air force pilots. Later, it clarified to say it had only one Indian pilot in its custody. He was later handed over to India.

India said it had detected a “large package” of Pakistan air force jets coming towards Indian territory, and sent up its own fighter aircraft to intercept them.

In the ensuing engagement, India lost a MiG-21 Bison, the IAF said, adding it also shot down a U.S.-built F-16 jet. India denies that it lost a second jet.

On Feb. 28, Indian defense officials displayed what they said were parts of an AMRAAM air-to-air missile that is carried only on the F-16s in the Pakistani air force.

India’s foreign ministry said that there was a “violation of the Indian air space by Pakistan air force and targeting of Indian military posts”.

Pakistan’s military has denied it used F-16s in the attack on India and says it has not lost any of its aircraft.

CEASEFIRE VIOLATIONS

In the past week, India and Pakistan have accused each other of regularly violating a ceasefire agreement along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control (LoC), which serves as a de-facto border between the two countries in the disputed Kashmir region.

For example, last Thursday, India said Pakistan had begun firing on at least three occasions, violating the ceasefire, killing one civilian on the Indian side.

Pakistani authorities said the ceasefire violations were by India, and four civilians had been killed in Pakistan in what they called a “deliberate” attack by Indian forces.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in ISLAMABAD; Edited by Martin Howell, Robert Birsel)

Pakistan releases captured Indian pilot as confrontation cools

People celebrate before the release of Indian Air Force pilot, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, in a street in Ahmedabad, India, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

By Krishna N. Das and Abu Arqam Naqash

WAGAH, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Pakistan handed a captured Indian pilot back to his country on Friday as the nuclear-armed neighbors scaled back their confrontation, at least temporarily.

Television footage showed Wing Commander Abhinandan walking across the border near the town of Wagah just before 9.00 p.m. (1600 GMT). Indian officials confirmed he had been returned and said he would be taken for medical checks.

Abhinandan was shot down on Wednesday while flying a MiG-21 fighter jet that crashed in Pakistani territory after a dogfight with a Pakistani JF-17.

World powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said earlier on Friday the pilot would be released “as a gesture of peace and to de-escalate matters”.

Before the pilot was released, Pakistani television stations broadcast video of him, looking cleaned up, thanking the Pakistani army for treating him well.

“The Pakistani army is a very professional service,” he said.

Throughout the day, crowds on the Indian side thronged the road to the crossing, shouting nationalist slogans and waving Indian flags.

“Pakistan is releasing our pilot, I thank them for that,” said Kulwant Singh, who has run a food stall at the crossing for 20 years.

“War can never be good. War is bad for business, war is bad for our soldiers.”

The disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has been at the root of two of the three wars fought between India and Pakistan since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

There was some firing along the contested border dividing Kashmir on Friday, according to a spokesman for India’s defense ministry, but the hostilities were well short of previous days.

Pakistan reopened some airports on Friday, after easing airspace restrictions that had disrupted flights between Asia and Europe for several days during the conflict.

Relations between the two countries, however, remain strained.

Qureshi said he would not attend a meeting of foreign ministers from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi this weekend, because his Indian counterpart had been invited to the event.

India also faces an ongoing battle against armed militants in its portion of Kashmir. On Friday, four security personnel and a civilian were killed in a gun battle with militants, officials said.

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Abu Arqam Naqash, Fayaz Bukhari, Shilpa Jamkhandikar and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Frances Kerry)

India welcomes Pakistan’s return of captured pilot, as powers urge de-escalation

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of an Indian Air Force pilot after he was captured by Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

By Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Indian military officials said on Thursday they welcomed Pakistan’s planned return of a captured pilot, but refused to confirm they would de-escalate a conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan, became the human face of the flare-up over the contested region of Kashmir following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.

“We are happy our pilot is being released,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, at a joint news conference of India’s three armed forces on Thursday evening.

He did not say when asked by reporters if India considered the return a de-escalation in the conflict.

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, to the relief of many Indians, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by India firing across the disputed border in Kashmir.

“As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow,” Khan told Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers thumped their desks in response.

“We will celebrate his release tomorrow,” said Vinay Bhardwaj, 34, a plumber in Nawshera, a border town in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “People are very happy about that here.”

The United States, China, European Union and other powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

The Muslim-majority Himalayan region has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the separate countries of Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India.

It is divided between India, which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.

On Tuesday, India said it hit a training camp for a Pakistan-based group who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and a senior government source told reporters that 300 militants had been killed.

Pakistan denies this, saying the attack was a failure and no one died, with bombs dropped on a largely empty hillside. It denies any militant camp was in the area. Local people said they had seen no sign of major casualties or significant damage, with only one man known to have been slightly hurt by the bombs.

Asked about the damage caused by Indian warplanes in Tuesday’s air strike, Kapoor said it was premature to provide details about casualties. But they said they had “credible” evidence of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.

“Whatever we intended to destroy, we did,” he said.

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Tuesday’s escalation marked the latest deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Khan had spoken of “mending ties” with India.

Khan’s decision to release the pilot came after several countries offered diplomatic assistance to mediate between two countries, that have gone to war three times since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after Khan’s announcement that he had spoken to the leaders of both countries and urged them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”.

Earlier, U.S. President Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan, adding that the United States was trying to mediate.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.

“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also offered to facilitate talks between the two sides.

Khan’s office said the prime minister had spoken to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and that both had appreciated his willingness to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their militaries.

Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

“The world is observing our collective will. It is necessary that we shouldn’t do anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us,” he said, in his first remarks since the downing of planes on Wednesday.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s foreign minister and expressed “deep concern”.

The United States, Britain and France proposed the United Nations Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack. China is likely to be oppose the move.

As a precaution amid the increased military activity, Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute. Thai Airways International announced on Thursday that it had canceled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

FIRING CONTINUES

Both countries said they downed enemy jets on Wednesday, though each disputed the claims of the other side, and each accused the other of breaching cease fire agreements.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on at least three occasions on Thursday, with the firing instigated by Pakistan every time, according to New Delhi. Pakistan said the ceasefire violations were by India.

Pakistan’s military said four civilians had been killed and two wounded in what it called a “deliberate” attack by India during the past 48 hours. A civilian on the Indian side of the border was killed in the firing on Thursday, an Indian official said.

Troops from India and Pakistan first exchanged fire on Thursday in the Poonch district for over an hour at 6 a.m., according to a statement from the Indian army. Pakistan said the firing began overnight.

Aijaz Ahmad, a resident in the Indian-controlled portion of the district, said he could hear heavy firing on Thursday afternoon.

“Loud sounds of mortar shells are being heard from a distance. Shops … are open but there is a lot of tension,” he said.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers for families in Jammu and Kashmir state living close to the border, hoping to keep them safe near their homes rather than evacuate them.

With a general election due in India by May, a surge in nationalism from any conflict with Pakistan could become a key factor, potentially favoring Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“This has brought a pro-Modi wave all through the country,” B.S. Yeddyurappa, a BJP leader in the southern state of Karnataka, told reporters. “The effect of this will be seen in the elections.”

(This story has been refiled to fix typo in headline, no change to text)

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Fayaz Bukhari, Drazen Jorgic, Aditya Kalra, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Sanjeev Miglani, Neha Dasgupta and Abu Arqam Naqash; additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Michelle Nicholls; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alison Williams)

Eight on trial for rape, murder of girl in India’s Kashmir amid public anger

Children attend a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Eight men accused of involvement in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state appeared in court on Monday for the first hearing in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and criticism of the ruling party.

The girl, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January, police said.

Public anger at the crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with outrage fueled by support for the accused initially shown by state government ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The protests have also focused on another rape allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The outrage has drawn parallels with massive protests that followed the gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, which forced the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.

Yet India has long been plagued by violence against women and children – reported rapes climbed 60 percent from 2012 to 40,000 in 2016, and many more go unreported, especially in rural areas.

Reports of torture, rape and murder of another child have emerged from Modi’s western home state of Gujarat.

In that case, the corpse of a girl was found near a cricket ground in the city of Surat a week ago.

The post-mortem showed she had been tortured and sexually assaulted before being strangled. The body had 86 injury marks, including some inflicted to her genitalia with hard, blunt objects, while more minor injuries suggest she had been beaten with a stick or slapped.

Doctors estimate that the unidentified girl was about 12, police said.

As the groundswell of revulsion grew, Modi assured the country on Friday that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticized for failing to speak out sooner.

Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, Modi received a letter from 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants upbraiding the political leadership over its weak response.

“The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into,” the former officials said.

“In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.”

The letter went further by blaming the BJP and likeminded right-wing Hindu groups for promoting a culture of “majoritarian belligerence and aggression” in Jammu, and in the Uttar Pradesh case it blasted the party for using feudal strongmen, who behave like gangsters, to shore up its rule.

The former officials said they held no political affiliation other than to uphold the values of India’s secular constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Some of the signatories have spoken out in the past also against Modi’s Hindu nationalist party accusing it of whipping up hostility towards India’s 172 million Muslims.

THREATS AGAINST LAWYER

Fallout from the 2012 rape case led to the resignation of Congress chief minister of Delhi. This time, Congress was quick to realize the mood of the country, with party leader Rahul Gandhi leading the first major protest in the capital last week.

On Monday, Gandhi tweeted that there had been nearly 20,000 child rapes in India in 2016, and urged Modi to fast-track prosecutions “if he is serious about providing ‘justice for our daughters'”.

Though the rape and killing of the girl in Kashmir had been known about for months, the backlash erupted after the charge sheet giving gruesome details of the crime was filed last week.

It alleged that the attack was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The alleged ringleader of the campaign, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held and assaulted. Two of the eight on trial are police officers who stand accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.

After Monday’s initial hearing in Srinagar, the judge adjourned the case until April 28 while the Supreme Court heard a petition from the lawyer representing the victim’s family to have the trial held elsewhere due to fears for her safety.

Ahead of the trial, the lawyer said she had been threatened with rape and death for taking up the case.

“I was threatened yesterday that ‘we will not forgive you’. I am going to tell Supreme Court that I am in danger,” said the lawyer, Deepika Singh Rawat, who has fought for a proper investigation since the girl’s body was found in January.

The Supreme Court also ordered security for the victim’s family after her father said he too feared for their safety.

Two ministers from the BJP, which shares power in Jammu and Kashmir, were forced to resign after being pilloried for joining a rally in support of the accused men.

(This version of the story corrects first paragraph below sub-head to show Delhi chief minister lost election, not forced to resign)

(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in NEW DELHI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Top Trump aide in Pakistan says terrorism must be fought ‘in all forms’

FILE PHOTO - Newly named National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes the announcement at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida U.S.

By Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser met Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief on Monday and emphasized “the need to confront terrorism in all its forms”, while praising democratic and economic development.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed hope that the new U.S. administration might mediate between Pakistan and longtime foe India over the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

H.R. McMaster was on his first South Asian trip since the new U.S. administration took office in January, earlier stopping in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s war-ravaged neighbor to the west.

Official statements on Monday gave little indication of whether the Trump administration would adopt a new, tougher policy on Pakistan, as some Afghan officials and Islamabad’s arch-foe India would like.

Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of providing Taliban insurgents shelter, and perhaps support, on its side of the countries’ porous border.

Pakistan denies it shelters the Afghan Taliban and says it fights against all the region’s jihadist groups with equal vigor.

McMaster – a U.S. Army general who served in the American-led international force in Afghanistan – indicated frustration with Pakistan in an interview with an Afghan news channel on Sunday.

“As all of us have hoped for many, many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past,” he told TOLO News in Kabul.

“And the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”

In Pakistan, McMaster’s gave no interviews and the official statement on his visit was more diplomatically couched.

“General McMaster expressed appreciation for Pakistan’s democratic and economic development, and stressed the need to confront terrorism in all its forms,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

McMaster met Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa as well as top foreign policy and national security officials.

“The prime minister conveyed Pakistan’s readiness to work with the international community to explore ways in which the Afghan crisis can be resolved,” Sharif’s office said in a statement.

It also said Sharif would welcome U.S. mediation in Pakistan’s disputes with India.

“(Sharif) welcomed President Trump’s willingness to help India and Pakistan resolve their difference particularly on Kashmir and noted that this could go a long way in bringing sustainable peace, security and prosperity to the region.”

The Indian-administered side of Kashmir has seen a recent spike in separatist violence amid accusations of brutality against supporters of the 28-year-old insurgency that India accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Pakistan denies the accusation.

The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

Teacher in violence-torn Indian Kashmir starts makeshift classrooms

A protester prepares to throw a stone towards an Indian policeman during a protest in Srinagar against the recent killings in Kashmir

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Wedding halls and prayer rooms have been turned into classrooms in Indian-administered Kashmir as families struggle to provide children with a normal life after more than 50 days of the Muslim-majority region’s worst violence in years.

At least 68 civilians and two security officials have been killed and more than 9,000 people injured, according to official tallies, in clashes between protesters chaffing at Indian rule and security forces.

Authorities trying to stifle protests that erupted after a young militant leader was gunned down by the security forces on July 8 ordered schools and colleges to close two days later.

There’s no sign of them re-opening.

Teacher Ghulam Rasool Kambay, seeing children becoming increasingly restless cooped up at home, decided to do something.

He opened a tutorial center in a village on Aug. 3 and now has more than a dozen of them in villages in a district south of the region’s main city of Srinagar.

“The response is good. We have about 800 students in these centers. Parents are eager to send their children as they have no option right now,” Kambay told Reuters.

Students find their way to the makeshift schools in small groups through back lanes, careful not to attract the attention of police.

They often sit on the floor as there are not enough desks and share books.

“It’s more like a self-learning exercise, just a way to keep in touch with books,” said Muneer Wani, 16, at his temporary school at a mosque where classes begin after morning prayers.

Muneer said it was the only place to meet friends and study.

“We can’t even go outdoors.”

Disputed Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan and has been a flashpoint for more than 60 years, sparking two wars between them.

Militant groups have taken up arms to fight for independence from Indian rule or to merge with Pakistan. India has blamed Pakistan for supporting the violence. Pakistan denies that.

Thousands of teenage boys defy a curfew every day and gather in groups to throw stones at police. Almost all of the deaths have been caused by security forces shooting at protesters.

On the streets of Srinagar, people have scrawled “Go India, go back”.

Zubair Ahmad said he was too worried about the safety of his two children to send them to classes at a nearby mosque.

His wife has been teaching them at home instead, but the children were getting restless, he said.

“It is very difficult for children … they’ve become aggressive.”

(Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Tom Lasseter, Robert Birsel)