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Bush whiff in Kashmir troop shift

New Delhi, Feb. 6: The army has withdrawn a complement of troops from Kashmir after defence headquarters assessed that militant-sponsored violence and infiltration was decreasing.

Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee said there was “much improvement” in Jammu and Kashmir. Consequently, a contingent of about 5,000 (more than a brigade) has been pulled out of Rajouri but no replacement has been sent.

More troops ' possibly upto the level of a division (about 15,000) ' are likely to be pulled out from Jammu and Kashmir over the next three months if army headquarters assesses that the law and order situation has improved and there are paramilitary forces available for use in counter insurgency operations.

The troops that have been moved out from Rajouri and sectors south of the Pir Panjal range have been sent to the army’s 33 Corps area in Siliguri/Darjeeling in north Bengal on what is essentially a peace posting apart from the units that man the India-China border and some units that are occasionally employed in counter-insurgency operations in lower Assam.

The announcement of the troops being pulled out from Kashmir comes as the government is beginning to prepare for the visit of US President George W. Bush in the first week of March.

Washington has in the past expressed concern over the military presence in Kashmir.

“This is not a withdrawal but a redeployment of forces from Jammu and Kashmir to the Northeast as the level of violence has come down,” Mukherjee said this morning.

The redeployment has been completed. Mukherjee refused to link it to Bush’s visit and called it a “routine exercise”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had ordered a redeployment in November following peace talks with Pakistan. Since then the government has been saying that further redeployment was a distinct possibility if the intensity of violence lessened. But the government does not give figures readily on redeployment of troops from Kashmir.

Army chief General J.J. Singh said more troops may be redeployed out of Kashmir if the trend continues.

Usually, infiltration across the Line of Control and consequent militant violence is low in the winter months because the high mountain passes are snowed under.

Singh said the brigade-level force that has been de-inducted from Kashmir was sent to the state in 1999 during the Kargil war and had since continued there.

“By our new professional conduct, we have a better attrition rate against militants. Security forces now have the upper hand and this has given us the opportunity to re-adjust force levels,” the army chief said.

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