India, Pakistan Exchange Fire Along Disputed Border

The latest violence came as Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee began a controversial trip to the region. Vajpayee traveled to the war-torn territory to visit survivors from last week’s deadly separatist attack on an Indian military base that killed 34, including many wives and children of soldiers.

Since the attack, which India blames on Pakistani-backed rebels, violence has swept the region between the two nuclear rivals and gunfire has wracked the border.

The murder of separatist leader Abdul Gani Lone by two unidentified gunmen was the latest act to undermine efforts to bring peace to the region. Vajpayee said Lone, who is considered a moderate separatist, was killed because of his efforts to end the nearly five decades of violence in the province.

“It will have an impact but it should not hurt peace moves. Stronger efforts should be made to bring peace,” Vajpayee told reporters at the start of his three-day visit.

The Pakistan Foreign Ministry also denounced what it called the “cold-blooded murder,” but blamed the attack on “the continuing reign of terror unleashed by the occupying forces in Indian-held Kashmir.”

In the U.S., Secretary of State Colin Powell called the assassination an effort to derail peace efforts.

“This is a direct attack on hopes for a fair political process in Kashmir,” Powell said. “This was a terrorist act designed to undermine the hopes of the Kashmiri people for free and fair elections without violence.”

Along the border, Pakistani and Indian forces exchanged heavy fire for the fifth day, killing at least seven people on both sides of the line. The state of affairs there has deteriorated to the point where British, U.S. and Chinese officials have warned the situation could spiral out of control.

“The possibility of war between India and Pakistan is real and very disturbing,” said Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who is set to travel to the region next week. “This is a crisis the world cannot ignore.”

The Chinese foreign ministry also called on the two sides to defuse the situation.

“We hope that the two sides will prioritize the greater good of peace and stability in the South Asian region, exercise restraint and resolve the tensions through peaceful negotiations,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a regular news conference.

Despite these diplomatic efforts, Indian and Pakistani officials said more troops will be sent to the border in the coming days. Latest reports indicate some one million troops are currently deployed along the boundary.