India slammed Pakistan on Wednesday over a rare firefight in the disputed territory of Kashmir in which two Indian soldiers were killed, but the spat between the nuclear-armed rivals appeared unlikely to escalate into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.
India summoned Pakistan’s envoy in New Delhi to lodge a protest over Tuesday’s clash, and accused Pakistani troops of “barbaric and inhuman” behaviour. It said Pakistani soldiers crossed the heavily militarized Line of Control in Kashmir and fired at one of its army patrols.
The body of one of the soldiers was found mutilated in a forested area on the side controlled by India, Rajesh K. Kalia, spokesman for the Indian army’s Northern Command, said. However, he denied Indian media reports that one of the bodies had been decapitated and the throat of another had been slit.
“Two Indian soldiers were killed in the attack and their bodies subjected to barbaric and inhuman mutilation,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement after Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India had been called in.
Although India’s defence minister described the incident as “highly provocative”, its foreign minister sought to cool tensions, saying that exhaustive efforts to improve relations could be squandered if the situation was not contained.
“I think it is important in the long term that what has happened should not be escalated,” Salman Khurshid told a news conference. “We cannot and must not allow the escalation of any unwholesome event like this.”
“We have to be careful that forces ... attempting to derail all the good work that’s been done towards normalization (of relations) should not be successful,” the foreign minister added, without elaborating on who such forces might be.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their independence in 1947, two of them over the Himalayan region, and both are now nuclear powers.
Firing and small skirmishes are common along the 740-kilometre Line of Control despite a ceasefire and slowly improving bilateral ties. The Indian army says eight of its soldiers were killed in 2012, in 75 incidents.
However, incursions by troops from either side are rare, and one Indian media report said that Tuesday’s incident – about 600 metres from the de facto border – marked the “first major ingress” since the ceasefire was agreed in 2003.
Indian army officials said cross-border firing broke out hours after the clash but, on Wednesday, the Line of Control was quiet.
Pakistan has denied India’s allegations, with an army spokesman describing them as “propaganda” aimed at diverting attention away from an Indian incursion two days earlier in which one Pakistani soldier was killed. India denies that its troops crossed over the line during last weekend’s incident.
A Pakistani foreign ministry official dismissed the latest flare-up. “These small issues have been going on for years – I don’t think it will have much overall effect on the (peace) talks going on,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani senator and member of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security, said that the Indian government – dogged by corruption scandals and facing a tough election as early as this year – was returning to “the war-like language of the past” for domestic political reasons.
“Pakistan has its hands full with a full-blown insurgency inside its borders. It doesn’t suit Pakistani interests at all to raise the temperature along the [Line of Control],” Mr. Hussain said.
There was little coverage of the skirmish in Pakistani media, but a succession of commentators voiced fury on Indian TV news channels and the main opposition party urged the government to expose Pakistan’s actions to the international community.
“Pakistan can be named and shamed for this brutal attack,” Bharatiya Janata Party Leader Arun Jaitley told reporters.
India considers the entire Kashmir region of snow-capped mountains and fertile valleys an integral part of its territory. Pakistan contests that and demands implementation of a 1948 UN Security Council resolution for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
Some commentators drew parallels between Tuesday’s clash and a conflict in 1999 when Pakistan-backed Islamist infiltrators occupied the Kargil heights in the north of Indian Kashmir. India lost hundreds of troops before re-occupying the mountains after bitter fighting that almost triggered a fourth war.
Away from the border, however, ties had appeared to be improving. Pakistan’s cricket team completed a two-week tour of India on Sunday, the first time it had visited in five years.