Indians question Pakistani troops pullback


India cast doubt yesterday on Pakistan's announcement that it was partially pulling back troops from the Kashmir Line of Control (LOC), saying it was difficult to withdraw from such terrain at short notice.

The Defence Minister, Mr George Fernandes, said India could not respond to Pakistan's initiative, which came hours after India extended its unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir by another month, until it was clear what it meant.

"We can't believe that it is possible for any army to start pulling out in such a short time", Mr Fernandes said.

Pakistan said on Wednesday that as a follow-up to a pledge on December 2nd to exercise maximum restraint on the LOC, where troops from both sides have exchanged fire for years, it would withdraw part of its forces deployed there.

Pakistan said the withdrawal had already begun and troops had started moving towards army cantonments. It urged India to begin a similar withdrawal from the region.

Earlier on Wednesday the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, ordered an extension of a three-week-old unilateral ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir for another month.

Troops are in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation at several points along the 720 km control line separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled regions of Kashmir. The line begins in Pallanwalla sector in southern Kashmir and snakes its way up to the remote Siachen glacier.

"The LOC runs across mountains and peaks. You can't bring helicopters and buses to take people out to the cantonments. So we want to understand from Pakistan the meaning of its statement", Mr Fernandes said.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Raminder Singh Jassal, said India would welcome a "real de-escalation" of tension at the Kashmir frontier, where Indian troops were deployed because of the threat the country faced from across the border. Indian forces were in Kashmir "in response to the threat we face of encouragement, abetment and incitement of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir", he said.