SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian security officials said on Friday they had found evidence of attacks planned by Pakistani military-backed militants on a major Hindu pilgrimage in the disputed Muslim-dominated region of Kashmir.
Tension has run high in the mountainous region since a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into an Indian police convoy on Feb. 14, killing 40 paramilitary policemen, and leading to aerial clashes between the two nations.
Indian officials said a mine with Pakistan ordinance marking was among caches of ammunition, explosives and weapons retrieved following intelligence reports of likely attacks on routes used by hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus who trek to the region’s holy Amarnath cave every year.
In an order issued on Friday, the government in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir effectively called off the pilgrimage and asked the gathered pilgrims to return home, citing the intelligence reports.
“The Pakistan ordinance factory markings (on the mine)...clearly indicate (the) Pakistan army is involved in terrorism in Kashmir,” Indian military commander Lieutenant-General K.J.S. Dhillon told a news conference in Srinagar.
There was no immediate comment from spokesmen for Pakistan’s military and its foreign ministry.
Muslim-majority Kashmir has been the site of decades of hostility between nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan. Both countries claim it in full but rule it in part.
India accuses Pakistan of funding armed militants, along with separatist groups in India’s portion of the region considered non-violent by international observers.
Islamabad denies the Indian accusation, saying it provides only diplomatic and moral support to the separatist movement.
In recent months, Pakistan says it has cracked down on Islamic militant groups, including arresting Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the militant attack on India’s financial capital of Mumbai in 2008 that left 166 people dead.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is battling an economic crisis at home, said in April that his country had nothing to gain from allowing armed militants to infiltrate into Indian-controlled Kashmir, and that Pakistan was doing its best to stop such incursions.
Khan is also working on rebuilding Pakistan’s image in Washington after an extended period of acrimony. The United States is relying on Islamabad’s support to seal a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan that would allow U.S. troops to be pulled out after a protracted war lasting almost 18 years.
U.S. President Donald Trump has twice offered in as many weeks to help mediate between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, a proposal that New Delhi has unequivocally shot down.
Dhillon said security forces in Kashmir, where more than 300 people have died in just the last six months, were still being targeted with improvised explosive devices.
“All these things are an indication that Pakistan and the Pakistani army is desperate to disrupt peace in Kashmir Valley,” he said.
Police had received intelligence reports there could be an increase in militant-led violence, Kashmir police chief Dilbagh Singh told the briefing in the region’s main city of Srinagar.
India has moved an additional 10,000 paramilitary troops into the restive region because of the security situation, training requirements and the need for rotation, a home ministry official said on Friday.
The influx swells an estimated 40,000 troops already in the region to provide security for the Amarnath pilgrimage. The new deployment has caused concern among residents that Indian security forces planned another major crackdown.
They are fearful that a curfew may be imposed, affecting their ability to go out, and supplies coming in. There has been some panic buying at grocery stores in the past week and long queues at petrol stations.
Regional leaders indicated they are worried that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will now try to remove decades-old special rights for the people of the state, including an amendment to the Indian constitution made in 1954 known as Article 35A. That amendment prevents people from outside the state from buying property there.
“Various speculations are rife including removal of 35A to change the demography of the state and its Muslim majority character,” separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq told Reuters.
“As in the past, people and the leadership have to be ready to resist every attempt to undo it,” said Farooq, who is the chairman of Hurriyat, a political movement that wants independence from India.
Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR and Devjyot Ghoshal in NEW DELHI; Edited by Martin Howell/Clarence Fernandez/Susan Fenton