New Delhi says assailants, in Pakistani Army uniform, crossed LoC; Islamabad denies charge

In what could turn out to be an acid test for India-Pakistan ties, the killing of five Indian soldiers early Tuesday on the Line of Control (LoC) in the Poonch sector of Jammu & Kashmir evoked strong condemnation from top political leaders with some in the Opposition asking the government to retaliate against Islamabad.

While Defence Minister A.K. Antony did not directly accuse Pakistan of the killing — he made a carefully worded statement in both Houses of Parliament blaming the ambush on “approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms” — Islamabad rejected accusations by the “Indian media” of involvement of its troops in the incident.

But as the electronic media ratcheted up its rhetoric on the incident, statements by leaders, including those in the Government, acquired a sharper edge. Winding up his response in the Rajya Sabha in the evening, Mr. Antony predicated New Delhi’s response on signals and actions from Pakistan. United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi declared that India would not be cowed down by “such acts of deceit” while the Bharatiya Janata Party urged the government to “reply to Pakistan in the same language.”

Mr. Antony’s statement left open the possibility of the persons in uniform being soldiers or terrorists dressed to look like them, a question that could get clarified once the Army completes its investigations.

Speaking to the media, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid warned that the incident could affect the bilateral relationship with Islamabad. The normalisation process was taking place because of signals from Pakistan. But if objective conditions for that were not met, it will be difficult for anyone on our side to move forward, he cautioned.

Soon after news of the post-midnight ambush broke, India summoned Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner Mansoor Ahmed Khan and lodged a strong protest over the attack by assailants who came from across the Line of Control.

Chief of the Army Staff Gen. Bikram Singh will leave for the ambush site in Poonch district on Wednesday to commiserate with the units of the Maratha Light Infantry and Bihar Regiment, as well as to ascertain the actual train of events from the sole survivor of the six-man patrol detail.

On its part, Islamabad rejected allegations that its troops were involved and said Pakistani military authorities have confirmed that there had been no exchange of fire that could have resulted in such an incident.

The attack takes place when prospects for resumption of peace talks had brightened with a new government in saddle in Islamabad and the two sides appeared to have got over the previous skirmish on the LoC in January this year, in which an Indian soldier was beheaded.

Officials had earlier said both sides could hold talks this month on the least controversial and easily resolvable disputes over demarcation of the border in Sir Creek and barrages being built by India on rivers common to both countries.