New Delhi: India’s government on Thursday for the first time directly accused Pakistan’s army of involvement in a deadly ambush on its troops in Kashmir, amid uproar over its handling of the attack.
Defence Minister A. K. Antony also warned the ambush would damage warming ties with Islamadad and hinted at stronger military action along the Line of Control (LoC) where the ambush overnight on Monday saw five Indian soldiers killed.
“It is now clear that the specialist troops of Pakistan army were involved in this attack,” Antony told parliament.
“Nothing happens from Pakistan’s side of the LoC without the support, assistance, facilitation and often direct involvement of the Pakistan army,” he said.
Antony’s strongly worded statement comes after the opposition angrily accused the minister of deliberately choosing not to blame the Pakistani army for the attack, amid attempts to revive peace talks with Pakistan.
Analysts have said the attack had complicated efforts to arrange a meeting between India’s veteran Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his new Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif.
“Naturally, this incident will have consequences on our behaviour on the LoC and for our relationship with Pakistan,” Antony said.
“Our restraint should not be taken for granted nor the capacity of our armed forces and resolve of the government to afford the sanctity of the LoC ever be doubted.”
The picturesque Himalayan territory of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan by the UN-monitored LoC, the de facto border, but is claimed in full by both countries.
While Indian military sources said on Tuesday Pakistani troops were behind the attack, Antony would only say in a statement the same day that it was carried out by men wearing Pakistani uniforms.
The Congress-led government has been keen to engage with Pakistan, with Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid saying on Wednesday, “We don’t want to create a situation that is detrimental and destructive for India’s security and peace”.
But following the attack, the opposition has piled pressure on the government to postpone peace talks. The ambush and the government’s response have made frontpage news in India.
Thursday’s headline in the Times of India daily read “Under fire for letting Pak off the hook, government to rejig position.”
With elections due by May 2014, analysts have said the government cannot afford to look soft on Pakistan.
Pakistan has denied any part in the incident, but India has lodged an official protest with Islamabad for what is one of the worst losses of life for the Indian army since a 2003 truce agreement.
Antony said he made his initial comments based on the best available information, and that Thursday’s statement came after receiving the latest briefing from Army Chief General Bikram Singh over the attack.
The uproar has paralysed parliament, which only resumed on Monday after a long break, as the government attempts to drive through stalled economic reforms ahead of the elections.
A senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the minister’s statement, and thanked him for “correcting his mistake”.
“The whole house supports Antony’s statement. This sends a strong message to Pakistan that they can’t take us for granted,” Sushma Swaraj told parliament.
The minister’s statement comes as the bodies of the five soldiers were cremated with state honours in their local villages, in the presence of army officers and thousands of mourners, local media reports said.
India has fought three wars with Pakistan, two over the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
A deadly flare-up along the LoC in January brought low-level peace talks to a halt. They had only just resumed after a three-year hiatus sparked by the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people. India blamed Pakistani militants for the attack.
More than a dozen armed rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989, demanding independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan.