India and Pakistan exchanged heavy mortar fire over their disputed Kashmir border on Monday leaving two dead, as New Delhi mulled Islamabad's latest efforts to defuse the crisis that has pushed the South Asian nuclear rivals to the brink of war.
Two Indian soldiers were killed and five seriously injured in the mortar exchange in the Pallanwalla and Nowshera sectors of southern Kashmir.
"This is the heaviest mortar shelling we have seen for four months," Brigadier P.C. Das told reporters. The barrage was so intense that more than 1,000 villagers had to be evacuated from their homes in Nowshera overnight on Sunday.
The clash came as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet committee on security met in New Delhi to discuss the latest developments amid the largest military build-up on both sides of the border for 30 years.
The crisis, triggered by what India says was a Pakistan-backed terrorist assault on the Indian parliament on December 13, has triggered a bout of tit-for-tat diplomatic sanctions and war threats from both sides.
"So far we have concentrated on the diplomatic offensive and this will continue till one concludes there is an end of the road in terms of diplomacy," Defence Minister George Fernandes said on Monday.
Addressing army and air force personnel at several forward locations near the border with Pakistan, Fernandes said he believed diplomatic efforts had a good chance of succeeding.
"But in an unlikely event of this not happening, then one will have to take decisions and these decisions will be very demanding," he said, adding "we will do whatever is needed."
India has said the only way out of the current impasse is for Islamabad to crack down on the two militant groups blamed for carrying out the parliament attack -- Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Under increasing US pressure to move against the militants, Pakistan announced on Sunday the arrest of Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and on Monday the arrest of more than two dozen Lashkar and Jaish militants.
There was no immediate reaction from New Delhi, which had described previous Pakistani measures as "cosmetic" and inadequate.
"There is considerable pressure on Pakistan by the world powers and it indicates that some of our efforts are making an impact. But to what extent it goes, is still not known," Fernades said.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said on Sunday the two countries should "move towards peace and harmony" rather than war, but added Pakistan would respond vigorously to any attack.
"If any war is thrust on Pakistan, the Pakistan armed forces and the 140 million people of Pakistan are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might," Musharraf said.
India said it had handed over a list of wanted militants to Pakistan Sunday night.
"They should be handed over to India for trial," Law Minister Arun Jaitley said, adding the prospect of war rested on Pakistan's response.
"If Pakistan takes substantial action against these terrorist organisations and if Pakistan goes about arresting these terrorists ... then certainly I think a situation more conducive to both the countries can arise," Jaitley said.
Musharraf has offered to meet Vajpayee on the sidelines of the January 4-6 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Nepal. India though has ruled out any face-to-face talks.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, twice over disputed Kashmir.
Although the two sides regularly trade artillery and mortar fire over the disputed Kashmir border, Monday's exchange took on extra significance given warnings from both sides that any "adventurism" on the part of the other could trigger a full-scale conflict.
At least 60,000 Indian villagers living near the Kashmir border have fled their homes in the last five days.
(China Daily January 1, 2002)