Atal flies into Pak shells, Sharif call
First triumph in night of hellfire
Ominous Islamabad signal to US
Calcutta weather

Kargil, June 13 
On a day Nawaz Sharif called up A.B. Vajpayee with a ?desire to defuse tension?, an audacious Pakistan army shelled Kargil intermittently and bombed out a public meeting of the Indian Prime Minister.

Vajpayee?s trip to express solidarity with soldiers went ahead despite the shelling. However, security personnel restricted his movement and allowed him to address only an enclosed audience close to the helipad.

Sharif, who phoned Vajpayee after Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz briefed him on the outcome of his Delhi visit, urged the Indian Prime Minister to join efforts to ?prevent our region from descending into chaos and conflagration?.

Vajpayee told Sharif that it was absolutely necessary for Pakistan to ensure that status quo ante is restored on the Line of Control, official sources said.

With shells landing within a kilometre of the helipad, Vajpayee choppered into the battle-ridden frontier this morning. Security agencies did not let him move out of the helipad. The vicinity of the helipad was still being shelled when the Prime Minister?s two-chopper party landed. More shells hit Kargil targets during his half-hour stay in the helipad lounge.

Five shells landed too close for the security forces? liking. A PTI report said the divisional commissioner?s office in Baroo, where preparations had been made for Vajpayee?s public address, was destroyed. The DC?s office was hit at the initially scheduled time of the Prime Minister?s address.

Security officers had turned down a suggestion by Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah that Vajpayee visit the market place close to the DC?s office. Vajpayee?s proposed tour of Drass was also cancelled on reports of shelling.

President K.R. Narayanan sent a message from Hyderabad, saying he is ?greatly relieved to know you were not affected by the cowardly act and continued with your programme to boost the morale of our troops.?

The Pakistani move was being seen as an attempt at letting the Indian government know who is the master of the peaks at the moment. The consistent accuracy of the shells also lent credence to views that moles are guiding the cross-border fire.

Though the public meeting was washed out, Vajpayee managed to speak to a handful of senior citizens from Kargil in the safety of the lounge.

?We wanted friendship with them but we have got enmity. They have taken away our territory, shelled our land and made thousands homeless. We shall reply to this challenge,? he said.

Vajpayee added he had told Aziz yesterday that ?we do not want your land but you should return ours. We are ready to make any sacrifice for this?.

Vajpayee accused Pakistan of eyeing Jammu and Kashmir, and said: ?Pakistan wants this state because it is a Muslim-majority area but we do not agree with this view. There are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. Perhaps our neighbour does not like the idea that India is a secular state?.

The Prime Minister met a detachment of troops at the helipad and told them: ?I know your morale is high. We are prepared to face anyone who challenges our territorial integrity.? He also announced free ration for all refugees.

Later in Srinagar, where he is spending the night, Vajpayee said that ?a war has been forced on us and we want to finish it.? He ruled out the possibility of a nuclear flare-up.    

Drass, June 13 
?We?ve got it, we?ve physically occupied Tololing,? the artillery officer cried out from his camouflaged command post on the mountain?s midriff, victory signals still crackling on the radio behind him. It was a little past dawn and the officer?s eyes were bloodshot and bleary from directing artillery fire through the night, but a smile was spreading on his tired face. ?At last we?ve knocked those fellows out of there, perhaps we will soon have Height 5140 and Tiger Hill as well,? he said.

It was the first bit of good news jawans in this sector had had in a month ? and it had come after a night of stunning artillery and infantry assaults on enemy posts: 25 artillery units had pounded Tololing and Pakistani artillery positions further behind, with 15,000 shells from three sides ? Kaksar, Drass and Matayen.

Infantry batches, working in tandem with artillery commanders, had launched pincer raids on the peak and rained additional fire on entrenched infiltrators. They used renades, machine guns and Milan anti-tank missiles. By daybreak, Indian troops had reclaimed the crucial peak and the campaign to secure National Highway 1A from enemy fire had had its first breakthrough.

Nine soldiers, including an officer, died in the battle for Tololing but casualties on the other side are reported to be much higher; initial estimates said about 15 infiltrators had been killed and several injured.

Indian soldiers also seized a cache of Pakistani weapons in the raid besides supplies. And despite the casualties, the mood among soldiers was soaring.

?We have beaten the hell out of him,? said an artillery commander, able to afford a smile for the first time since operation flushout began.

?I shudder to think what must have happened to him with so much metal and gunpowder landing. In 25 years of shelling, I myself have not seen such concentrated use of firepower.?

The morning air was thick with pungent phosphorous from guns that had been blasting the last 12 hours and the mountainside was littered with the debris of a harsh night; brass shells scattered; fatigued, soot-ridden gunners sprawled in the pits; the earth under the guns scarred and dented. ?Even this looks like a battleground, imagine what it must look like where our fire landed,? the commander said.

Last night was the night of smoke on earth and fire in the sky. The first to go were the Bofors 155-mm howitzers, coughing simultaneously on targets from units spread as far wide as 50 miles on the Kaksar-Drass-Matayen road. As dusk dissipated into darkness, the Bofors barrels began to flash and thunder, their shells vaulting, mingling with the stars for a while and then plummeting to destroy. Then came a barrage of medium-range fire ? 130-mm and 105-mm guns booming one after the other from unit after unit. Then again the Bofors gun and thereafter, bursts of killer showers from the spectacular Russian-built multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs), which work like firespitting dragons exhaling.

As we arrived at a medium-range battery near Drass, guns had already begun to fire. The vicinity was shuddering, sound blasts rippled through our vehicle and the undercarriage rattled as if it was about to be torn asunder. The guns were shrouded in dust and fumes and gunners shuffled about, sinister shadows in the gathering pall, feeding the guns and firing. After every round came fresh orders on trajectories, barked out by the group commander. The gunners swivelled their barrels, loaded the charges and fired again.

There was intermittent counter-bombardment but the airspace last night was too choked with Indian iron and TNT to permit much from the other side. But there was another worry niggling at artillery commanders as they mounted their pounding: the threat of a ground attack by infiltrator parties. Patrol parties were out on the mountains and along the nullahs and even the gunners had their personal weapons loaded and at hand.

?Who knows, they might decide to push in a few men frustrated at the beating they are getting?? said the battery commander. ?This is a porous border and men can always sneak in by cover of darkness.? But would they dare engage such a huge troop presence in ground battle? The commander shook his head impatiently and said: ?In this situation it is not a question of numbers. Even if a couple of them manage to get past and throw a couple of grenades, they can destroy a whole battery of guns. Look at the amount of ammunition laid out on the ground.?

He himself had his pistol ready and somewhat nervously repeated his orders on vigilance against unknown movement on the ground. Save for the flash of guns, the torch flicker of patrol parties was the only light in the darkness.

After the first round of shelling, which lasted close to three hours, came a lull in the Drass Valley. But up along the treacherous ridges of Tololing, infantry troops were grinding closer to enemy positions.

Close to midnight, the radio in the command came to life again as infantry units demanded fresh fire on new positions they had been able to identify. Another round of helling tore the darkness and the silence of the night.

When the radio buzzed next, it was morning and the message was that Tololing had been won.    

New Delhi, June 13 
Instead of de-escalation, India and Pakistan are inexorably moving towards a wider conflict if not a short, limited war.

Only a miracle can stop this steady drift.

In its preoccupation during most of the week with the Jaswant Singh-Sartaj Aziz talks, the main show on the diplomatic front in south Asia, the Indian public has ? not surprisingly ? lost sight of several sideshows which are determining the agenda and the scope of the Kargil conflict.

The first ? and most important ? of these sideshows is a letter received by US secretary of state Madeleine Albright from her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz. The second is a highly-sensitive mission to Rawalpindi undertaken by chairman of the Political Commission of China?s People?s Liberation Army (PLA), Gen. Li.

The Jaswant Singh-Sartaj Aziz talks having ended in deadlock, it will be these sideshows which will determine the way the Kargil dispute is finally settled.

The letter from Aziz to Albright, a response to the latter?s telephone conversation with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif more than a fortnight ago ? followed up with a communication from the US secretary of state to her Pakistani counterpart ? was described by diplomatic sources as ?harsh and uncompromising?.

Sources privy to Aziz?s letter said it was as if the Pakistan foreign minister had merely signed it. It was written and put up for Aziz?s signature by the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The letter is said to be a reflection of Pakistan?s disappointment over what it sees as a US tilt towards India.

More significantly, it sums up the Pakistan army?s determination to persist with the course of confrontation with India which it has embarked on.

Not surprisingly, without referring to the letter, US diplomats here have been privately telling Indian officials that they no longer have enough leverage over Pakistan to bring about an end to the Kargil conflict.

It is in this context that Gen. Li?s mission to Rawalpindi has acquired significance. His meetings with Pakistan army top brass suggest two things: China realises only the Pakistan army ? and not the civilian leadership in Islamabad ? can bring peace in Kargil, and second, that the US and China are working together, albeit separately, towards the common objective of peace in south Asia.

Gen. Li?s visit to Rawalpindi, only days after Pakistan?s chief of army staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf was in Beijing, underscores China?s concern about the possibility of an escalation of the Kargil conflict.

Washington?s frustration, expressed in conversations by their diplomats with Indian officials, also lends credibility to their fears that the fighting may spread beyond the present sectors along the Line of Control.

A meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries in Cologne also suggests that for the first time since the current Indo-Pakistan stand off began, there are genuine fears of an escalation in fighting. German foreign minister J. Fischer, speaking on behalf of G-8 after the Cologne meeting, said the West could no longer remain an onlooker and ?want to mediate in the conflict?.    

Today?s forecast:Partly cloudy sky. One or two spells of light rain.

Temperature: Maximum 34.3?C (Normal)
Minimum 26.4?C (1?C below normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 97%
Minimum 64%

Rainfall: 0.6 mm

Sunset: 6.19 pm
Sunrise: 4.54 am

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