Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated yesterday when more Indian troops died in an operation against militants blamed for a bombing that killed dozens last week and Islamabad recalled its ambassador to New Delhi.
Yesterday’s deaths increased pressure on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take action against Pakistan amid nationwide outrage over the deaths of at least 40 soldiers in a suicide bombing in Kashmir that was claimed by a militant group based in Pakistan.
The flare-up in a long-simmering dispute over Kashmir between the nuclear-armed neighbours threatened to overshadow the visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to both countries.
Saudi Arabia said it wanted to de-escalate tensions between the nations, which had spread beyond harsh diplomatic exchanges to threats against Kashmiri Muslims living elsewhere in India and calls for cricketing boycotts.
India claims it has evidence the Jaish-e-Mohammad group that claimed the bombing had backing from Pakistan. Islamabad denied any involvement in the attack.
Faced with calls to act, and a general election due by May, Mr Modi has promised a “strong response” and a “fitting reply”.
Indian security forces, who imposed curfews and conducted door-to-door searches after the bombing, said they had killed two suspected organisers of the attack in a clash during a security sweep yesterday. Both alleged masterminds were members of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Pakistani nationals, police said.
Four Indian soldiers died in the clash in Pulwama district, near the summer state capital of Srinagar, police said, while six were wounded, including several senior officers. A civilian was also killed.
One of the dead militants was identified as Abdul Rashid Gazi, who went by the alias Kamran Bhai, Reuters reported.
With tension mounting, Pakistan withdrew its envoy to India for consultations, reciprocating a move by India.
India, meanwhile, asked the International Court of Justice to order the release of an Indian national sentenced to death by Pakistan for spying.
India says Islamabad defied international treaties by denying the former Indian naval commander diplomatic assistance before his conviction.
Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav was arrested in Pakistan in March 2016 and convicted of spying. The court is expected to take months to reach a conclusion.
Kashmir has been at the heart of decades of animosity between the neighbours, with both nations claiming the territory in full, but ruling it in part. Two of the three wars between the countries have been over the Himalayan territory.
The sides regularly trade artillery barrages across the disputed line of control, leading to a steady stream of fatalities, but last week’s bombing raised tensions sharply.
It also appeared to undo any potential thaw stemming from Pakistan’s agreement last year to open a visa-free crossing for Indian Sikh pilgrims wishing to visit a shrine in Punjab.
Instead, India has withdrawn trade privileges and has threatened further action. It said it also has Washington’s support to defend itself against cross-border attacks.
Analysts say retaliation may echo punitive cross-border raids launched after a 2016 attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir that killed 19.
Indian anger has also led to rising animosity towards Kashmiri Muslims in other parts of the Hindu-majority country, rights groups said.
“We are at a dangerous moment and authorities must do everything they can to uphold the rule of law,” said Aakar Patel, head of Amnesty India.
“Ordinary Kashmiris across India who are seeking only to improve their lives should not be singled out for violence simply because of where they come from.”
The regional film industry, which often becomes politicised at times of heightened tension, has again been dragged into the dispute.
An Indian film workers’ association called for a total ban on Pakistanis working in India’s film industry, although they are already largely blacklisted from Bollywood after the 2016 Kashmir attack.
The row came as the Saudi crown prince made visits to both countries in the first stops of an Asian tour.
After a passionate welcome in Islamabad, where he signed investment deals worth billions of dollars, Prince Mohammed was due to fly to New Delhi last night.
Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said Riyadh was committed to helping to find a peaceful solution.
“Our objective is to try to de-escalate tensions between the two countries, neighbouring countries, and to see if there is a path forward to resolving those differences peacefully,” Mr Al Jubeir said.