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The latest killings in the disputed Indian state of Kashmir could not have happened at a worse time. Islamic militants murdered about 40 men and women, mostly civilians, near Jammu just as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca was arriving in New Delhi.

As if this was not enough to embarrass Gen. Pervez Musharraf — who has been accused by India of waging a proxy war in Kashmir through extremist violence and militancy — the Pakistani president was having to admit that the recent referendum giving him a mandate to rule for another five years might not have been exactly fair.

Whatever Musharraf’s plan or game might be, there is one thing that is beyond doubt: He has enemies in his own backyard who are bent on spoiling the slim chance that the two warring and nuclear neighbors might achieve a lasting peace.

Despite what India had to say about the barbaric attack in Kashmir, it is illogical to believe Musharraf would have given his approval for such attacks to take place just as Rocca was flying in.

This, however, is not to say that Pakistan is not behind the violence in Kashmir, whose territory it claims. Of far greater significance is Washington’s attitude of wishing away unpleasantness. Its assertion that cross-border terrorism in the Indian state has diminished is hardly true, as the carnage in Jammu demonstrates.

The incident comes at a time when India is going through one of its most terrible Hindu-Muslim clashes in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There is little doubt that the killings in Kashmir were meant to provoke an escalation in communal strife.

Pakistan watchers aver that the nation’s military rulers — including Musharraf — have always nursed an ambition to see India disintegrate into smaller countries, as that would weaken New Delhi, allowing Islamabad to have a more equal relationship with it.

The latest tragedy comes after two other high-profile atrocities in recent months — the savage attack on India’s Parliament in New Delhi in December and the suicide bombing at the Kashmir Assembly in October.

Those masterminding such brutality have the gumption to try to undermine the global war against terrorism, implying that Musharraf or any other force can only hope to impede their march toward destruction.

There is a strong suspicion that mutants of organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad — two sworn enemies of New Delhi that Musharraf banned last January — are emerging. Such groups could have been responsible for the latest Kashmir massacre. These groups might have wanted to make it clear to the general that they can strike at will on either side of the border. The recent carnage in Karachi is a clear indicator of this capability.

Although sentiment in New Delhi and the Indian Army favors taking on Pakistan militarily — hundreds of thousands of troops from both countries are now engaged in an eye-to-eye confrontation — this is a time for utmost restraint and calm. India cannot afford to risk a war with Pakistan now as there is a good chance that fighting could force Musharraf to press the nuclear button. The consequences of such an action are too frightening to even imagine.

An editorial in a leading Indian newspaper says: “Conventional wisdom and creative prognosis indicate that it will be impossible to accomplish any objective rooting out of the suspected anti-India terror bases in Pakistan through a limited but surgically precise military thrust.”

What, then, can New Delhi do? It should further sensitize world opinion about Islamabad’s designs in Kashmir. And the sooner both countries sit across the table to talk, the brighter the chances are for a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio to emerge.

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