In what Indian officials called a turning point in their six-week war against Pakistani-backed infiltrators in the disputed territory Kashmir, Indian troops yesterday recaptured a strategic mountain peak known as Tiger Hill several miles north of here, officials in New Delhi said.
"The battle for Tiger Hill is over," All India Radio reported from the area, describing a "massive" nighttime attack. "It was a scene to be watched. The sky was lit with deadly fireworks, mountains on fire. . . . The soldiers involved in this operation are jubilant."
Col. Bikram Singh, the army spokesman in New Delhi, said the capture of Tiger Hill, a jagged, 16,500-foot peak just inside the Line of Control separating the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir, would create a "launching pad" to retake the ridges still occupied by Islamic militants and their Pakistani army reinforcements. He said there was no available count of casualties on either side.
Indian officials appeared doubly heartened by Pakistan's hasty diplomatic maneuvering over the past 24 hours, suggesting that Islamabad is looking for a way to end the conflict, which world powers fear could turn into a wider struggle between the nuclear rivals. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington Saturday and met with President Clinton yesterday. The two leaders agreed "that concrete steps will be taken" to restore the Line of Control separating the forces. Clinton also spoke earlier by phone with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Indian officials have called Sharif's efforts little more than subterfuge, and warned they would continue a full-scale assault until Pakistan withdraws from Indian soil. Some Islamic fundamentalist and military groups in Pakistan, however, have warned they will try to bring down Sharif if he withdraws.
"Pakistan's call for dialogue is a blatant attempt to obscure the facts," said Raminder Jassal, India's Foreign Ministry spokesman. "Pakistan must fully accept the futility of this misadventure. . . . The bottom line is the aggressors have to go back."
In Dras, a town of 16,000 that was the staging ground for the Tiger Hill assault, soldiers camped in bunkers and abandoned storefronts last week spoke eagerly of preparations, even as they slumped exhausted on sleeping bags and described the hardships of waging alpine warfare against opponents in the ridges above.
Resting in one shop, several members of the army's elite Rajputana Rifles corps said they had just returned from a two-week combat stint, where their mission was to scale another steep ridge known as Tololing and evict the intruders. The operation left at least 40 fighters dead on both sides after fierce fighting at 15,000 feet.
"It was snowing, and the air was so thin you were gasping for breath and could only take a few steps at a time," said one soldier. "They were up there using machine guns on us, all kinds of automatic fire. It took us many days to capture Tololing. Now we get seven days' rest and then go back to fighting."
A contingent of army signal corpsmen said the site had been heavily shelled three weeks before, killing two men and wounding a donkey. The animal, now an army mascot, roamed the town forlornly with a bloody bandage hanging from the raw wound in his flank.
"We will definitely take Tiger Hill, even if we have to sacrifice our lives. It's our land, isn't it?" demanded one soldier who looked as if he had not slept in days. He said it had taken him 14 hours to climb partway up the ridge to install radio equipment in a base camp. "I got lost in the snow for hours, but I prayed to survive, and I did."
The capture of Tiger Hill is the latest and most significant in a series of military victories by India, which has been trying to evict the infiltrators for six weeks. Their opponents, who deny Tiger Hill was overtaken, are Islamic rebels who seek to free southern Kashmir from Indian control, and troops from Pakistan, whose army seeks to reopen the half-century dispute over who should control all of Kashmir.
Since early May, Indian aircraft and artillery have been pounding the ridges north of Dras, Kargil and Batalik along the Line of Control. Meanwhile, thousands of Indian troops have been mobilized to assault the frozen hilltops, wearing "glacier clothing" and carrying up to 40 pounds of gear and weapons.
For weeks, India's progress was painfully slow, but its luck appeared to turn in mid-June when Tololing was captured. Since then, Indian troops have scored a succession of victories, taking a series of ridges known as peaks 4700, 5000 and 5100--and now, the formidable Tiger Hill.
As India's military position has improved and international pressure has increased on Pakistan to withdraw support for the fighters, there has been a flurry of signals in the past week that officials in Islamabad may be willing to negotiate an end to the conflict--even though formally they have continued to insist that they are not directly involved.
First, Pakistan sent a former diplomat to meet privately with Vajpayee, who then announced that India was eager to "permanently resolve the Kashmir problem." Since India and Pakistan were split into two nations in 1947, Kashmir has remained a bitter point of contention, leading to two wars and numerous skirmishes along the Line of Control.
Then Sharif flew to Washington after Clinton spoke on the phone with him and Vajpayee. The move raised hopes of a brokered settlement to the conflict, which has already cost India at least 217 troops killed and 409 wounded--as well as millions of rupees in military expenses. India also says it has killed 446 Pakistani soldiers.
"This has been an enormous drain. We never thought we would have to fight a war like this, and we were not prepared for it," said one army officer. "We can't afford to let it go on too much longer," he added, noting that within two months, bitter winter weather will make fighting almost impossible.
Still, morale seems high among Indian troops, who have received an outpouring of support from across India. Dozens of funds have been set up for soldiers' widows; commercial advertisements have taken up patriotic themes: "Stop 'em at the border!" commands one new ad for insect repellent.
In the Mushkoh Valley, a verdant but abandoned region just north of Dras whose horizon is dominated by Tiger Hill, the only human presence last week was a platoon of Sikh soldiers who had come down from a mountain camp to pick up supplies.
The men seemed relaxed and unfazed by the prospect of heading off to war at 16,000 feet. "We are going slowly to avoid casualties," one soldier said, "but once it starts, we will take it in two days."
CAPTION: Indian soldiers fire 155mm Bofors guns across the Line of Control dividing the Indian and Pakistani sectors of Kashmir near Kargil. The Indian artillery has been pounding Pakistani positions since early May.
CAPTION: Indian soldiers cheer the news yesterday that the strategic Kashmiri peak Tiger Hill had been recaptured from Pakistani forces.