Abdul Ghani Lone, a moderate Kashmiri separatist leader, was assassinated Tuesday in the city of Srinagar, a killing that the governments of India and Pakistan immediately charged each other with, bringing the already tense region a few steps closer to war.
The killing occurred on the fifth straight day of fierce artillery fire between the armies of both nations, the world's two newest nuclear powers. A million soldiers face each other on a hair trigger along a 1,800-mile border.
India fully mobilized its forces after a five-man assault team attacked Parliament in the nation's capital on Dec. 13. Last week, a terrorist raid on a bus and the family quarters of an army camp killed 32 in the region of Jammu.
Just moments after Mr. Lone's death Tuesday evening, India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, arrived in the city of Jammu at the start of a three-day visit to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Two masked gunmen dressed as policemen shot Mr. Lone as he left a public rally near Srinagar's well-known Martyrs Cemetery, considered hallowed ground by a generation that has fought for Kashmiri independence from India.
One of Mr. Lone's security guards also died in the attack.
According to witnesses, the violence began with the gunmen lobbing a hand grenade into the sizable crowd. It created a panic but failed to explode.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the assassination, but political leaders were quick to ascribe blame with self-assuredness.
"Whoever wants a peaceful solution in Kashmir is killed by Pakistan," said Farooq Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir's chief minister.
Mr. Vajpayee himself praised Mr. Lone in death far more than he had commended him in life, saying he was murdered because "he was working for peace."
Indeed, Mr. Lone, 70, was willing to at least consider participation in the state's coming elections, something most of his associates in Kashmir's leading separatist alliance --the All Party Hurriyat Conference -- were unwilling to do. Recent elections in Kashmir have been marred by fraud, further alienating Kashmiris from the New Delhi governments inclined to pre-select the winners.
Mr. Vajpayee has promised fair elections, and in part this pledge is one of the reasons for his current visit. Separatist hard-liners have been harshly critical of anyone who has softened their opposition to Indian rule.
These elections were one reason for India to forestall any punitive strikes against Pakistan, which it blames for years of terrorist attacks.
On May 13, just before the militants' raid in Jammu, India's defense minister, George Fernandes, told The Times that India had no plans to attack Pakistan in the next few months, even if severely provoked. "We do not want the elections to be disrupted at any cost," he said in an interview.
Other senior Indian officials, however, said that intelligence reports showed that Pakistan had intentions of sabotaging the elections, wanting to eliminate not just moderate leaders but their cadres as well.
Mr. Lone's assassination will now likely be used as yet another Indian argument for a punitive raid against Pakistan, an attack the United States and other nations are trying to avert, fearing among other things a war that could go nuclear.
But the assassination also fits several scenarios that India's arch foe would prefer to believe. "The murder of Abdul Ghani Lone is yet another incident in the continuing reign of terror unleashed by the occupying forces in Indian-held Kashmir for the past 12 years," read a statement issued by the Pakistani government shortly after the death was announced.
"The occupying forces have been engaged in a brutal effort to crush the Kashmiri spirit through murder, violence and rape. They will never succeed in their despicable design."
India and Pakistan were carved from the British Empire in 1947. From the start, they have fought over Jammu and Kashmir, a Himalayan region previously ruled by a maharajah. After the first of their three wars, the former princely state was divided along a cease fire line, with India retaining about two thirds of the populated land. Jammu and Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state.
In the late 1980s, Kashmiris began a violent independence movement.
(China Daily May 22, 2002)