Islamic militants shot and killed a local government minister in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Tuesday, part of a surge of recent violence that has dampened hopes for a new era of peace and cooperation in the disputed province following the massive earthquake that devastated the area on Oct. 8.
Ghulam Nabi Lone, education minister of India's Jammu and Kashmir state, was shot inside his home in the highly protected Tulsi Bagh neighborhood in the state's summer capital of Srinagar. His killing came just days after 10 members of two Hindu families were slain by militants in another part of the state.
People on both the Pakistani and Indian sides of Kashmir had hoped for a lull in violence in the aftermath of the earthquake, which caused the heaviest damage in the part of the province controlled by Pakistan. The region has been plagued by violence since separatists based in Pakistan launched an insurgency against Indian forces in 1989.
In Pakistani Kashmir, militants have pitched in with relief efforts, and several days ago, the United Jihad Council, an umbrella organization for militant groups in Kashmir, announced that its members were responding to the earthquake with a temporary cessation of violence.
Similarly, many Kashmiris have been urging India and Pakistan to use the earthquake relief effort as an opportunity to build on their two-year peace process, perhaps by permitting aid operations across the Line of Control, the heavily fortified cease-fire line that separates their forces in Kashmir.
The earthquake brought a slight softening of positions on both sides. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered condolences in a phone call to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, and India has provided Pakistan with blankets, tents medicine and fortified biscuits.
On Tuesday, Musharraf proposed an easing of restrictions on movement across the Line of Control for Kashmiris involved in relief work. "We will allow every Kashmiri to come across the Line of Control and assist in the reconstruction effort," Musharraf said at a news conference. "We would also like to facilitate the political leaders on both sides to go across and interact with each other and assist each other in whatever reconstruction effort," he said. India welcomed the proposal, the Reuters news agency reported.
So far, however, the cooperation has fallen far short. Pakistani officials, for example, have said that Indian helicopters are welcome in relief operations in Pakistan's earthquake zone, but only if they come without Indian pilots and crew. A report that Indian soldiers had crossed the Line of Control to aid their Pakistani counterparts was quickly denied in Islamabad.
"Our relationship has not reached to a point where we can be absolutely sure that the Indian military relief workers wouldn't be involved in some crucial reconnaissance of the area," a senior Pakistani military official said on condition of anonymity. India has rejected the idea of sending helicopters without the pilots.
Kashmiri leaders have faulted both governments for not making more of an effort to open communication channels in the aftermath of the quake. Many Kashmiri families have been divided by the conflict for decades and are desperate for information about loved ones who may have been caught in the temblor.
"If India would have allowed telephone links, people-to-people contacts, it would have given a boost to the peace process," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir's main moderate separatist leader, said this week, according to Reuters.
In Srinagar, police described Lone's assassination as a daring operation that began when two militants tossed a grenade at soldiers guarding a government ministers' residential compound. Once inside the complex, the militants killed a soldier and injured four others before entering the house of a lawmaker, Yusuf Tarigami, and firing indiscriminately, a senior police official told the Associated Press.
After that, the gunmen scaled the wall of Lone's house, which was next door, killed Lone and injured four other people. One of the gunmen was killed by soldiers; the second escaped after a three-hour standoff with security forces.
Singh, the Indian prime minister, called the assassination "dastardly" and vowed in a statement that "efforts to hamper the earthquake relief work and disturb peace in the state will be thwarted."
At least 41,000 were killed in Pakistan in the earthquake, according to officials, and 1,500 died on the Indian side of Kashmir. [On Wednesday morning, strong aftershocks rocked northern Pakistan, registering at magnitudes of 5.8 and 5.6, according to the Reuters news agency. The tremors were also felt in Indian Kashmir.]
Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.