The massive earthquake that rocked Kashmir appears to have dealt a blow to the disputed region’s Islamic militants, ripping through their heartland along the mountainous frontier and wrecking their network of camps, safe houses and weapons caches.
One former militant said Tuesday that a temporary rebel cease-fire called after the quake was a “clear sign they are in trouble.”
But he and other one-time rebels, Western diplomats and Indian officials cautioned that any setback to the insurgents — who work in small, flexible cells — is likely to be merely temporary.
And even if they can’t launch major attacks, the surviving rebels in Indian Kashmir would press their fight, most agreed, citing scattered violence in recent days.
“Their struggle runs deep and is strong-felt,” said Shahid ul-Islam, the former militant and a former lawyer who now leads a nonviolent separatist group.
Conflict among militants has killed 66,000
Dozens of militant groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence from India or its merger with Pakistan, a conflict that has killed more than 66,000 people. The Himalayan territory is divided between India and Pakistan by a cease-fire line known as the Line of Control that has become a de facto militarized border.
While U.S. officials have said that outlawed Pakistani extremist groups in Kashmir may be hiding al-Qaida leaders and training its foot soldiers, Pakistani leaders say no link between Osama bin Laden’s terror network and the militants has been established.
The 7.6-magnitude quake devastated villages and towns on both sides of the frontier in Kashmir, an area of towering peaks and deep valleys that has for the past 16 years offered plentiful hideouts from which the rebels launch attacks.
Hundreds of militants were believed to be among the dead, including top commanders from the feared Lashkar-e-Tayyaba group, some officials said.
Hiking through India’s side of the region the destruction is clear — fallen roofs rest on piles of stones and wooden beams that once were houses; men, women and children huddle around campfires outside their ruined homes each night in frigid temperatures.
The insurgents “could not have escaped the brunt,” said Mohammed Ashraf, a former militant who spent the early 1990s traversing the high mountain passes and hiding in the forests and villages still used as havens by the rebels.
“Shelter must be a problem, rations must be a problem, weapons must be a problem,” Ashraf, a slight man with close-cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard, said in an interview in Srinagar. “In the short term, they will not be nearly as sure-footed as they were before.”
Devastation greater on Pakistani side
On the Pakistani side of Kashmir, where many of the militants are believed to have camps, the devastation was exponentially greater.
Indian security officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter, said intelligence reports indicated that between 300 and 400 militants were killed in at least three ruined training camps around Muzaffarabad — Pakistani Kashmir’s main city — and the town of Rawalakote, also hit hard.
They said the estimates were based on radio intercepts made since the quake and previous reports about the location and strength of camps, which Pakistan denies exist.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and aiding the Kashmiri militants, a charge denied by Islamabad, which says it only gives moral support.
Hezb-ul-Mujahedeen, the largest insurgent group that on Tuesday ordered a suspension of attacks in affected areas, was thought to have camps in those areas of Pakistan.
A Western diplomat in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, confirmed the Indian estimates but said the chaotic situation made collecting accurate information difficult. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, predicted the militants would eventually regroup.
Guaranteed to resume fighting
“Once this tragedy is past, they will fight,” agreed Shahid ul-Islam. He should know — he was a rebel commander from 1989 until his capture seven years later.
After 18 months in prison he was released and decided to pursue his dream of uniting Indian Kashmir with Pakistan through peaceful means, joining a moderate separatist group.
But along the shadowy edge of Kashmiri nationalism, links between the nonviolent separatists and the militants do exist, and Shaid ul-Islam said contacts in Muzaffarabad told him that top militant commanders from a number of groups, including Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, were among the dead.
Those who survived were probably concerned with the relief effort, not fighting, he said.
In the Pakistani city of Balakot, a man whose sister was buried in the rubble of a collapsed school, said Lashkar-e-Tayyaba militants had tried to rescue children after the quake.
“The mujahedeen came here. The people you call terrorists. They picked up rocks with their hands and tried to save the children. They left when the army arrived,” Faizan Farooq said.
As for surviving militants, Shahid ul-Islam said the rebels “who are unharmed, who can still move about, will press India.”