Indian security forces in Kashmir went on full alert Monday, on the eve of a unilateral government cease-fire that Muslim militant groups have rejected with threats of stepped up violence.
The cease-fire was expected to take effect from Tuesday -- the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Past experience has shown that cease-fires in Kashmir tend to herald a sustained phase of violence by hardline separatist groups opposed to any deals with New Delhi.
During the Ramadan cease-fire, the security forces have been ordered to refrain from "initiating" combat operations against militant groups.
But there has been no reduction in the security presence in the streets of the Kashmir summer capital Srinagar, where army bunkers will remain at key intersections.
"We have briefed our troops and have asked them to stay on high alert," said a senior Border Security Force officer.
"In the past, militants have increased attacks on security positions and soft targets during Ramadan," he said.
The last cease-fire initiative in Muslim-majority Kashmir ended in August after just two weeks, during which hardline outfits opposed to the peace process massacred nearly 100 people -- mostly Hindu pilgrims and migrant workers.
Since Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayees announcement of the cease-fire nine days ago, 10 Sikhs and Hindus have been gunned down in two separate incidents.
Minority groups are worried that the violence will worsen.
"We are being targetted through no possible fault of our own," said Sohan Lal, a Hindu laborer from Bihar state. "We are here doing meager jobs for the Kashmiris. We are not working for any political party ... they should understand this."
Harpal Singh, a Sikh carpenter from Punjab state, said he was considering leaving Kashmir for good after living here for 25 years.
"It's no good waking up and wondering if I even dare go to work," Singh said. "How many other places are there where a cease-fire means your life is in greater danger?"
Nearly all pro-Pakistan militant outfits have rejected Vajpayee's cease-fire offer and told their field commanders to intensify attacks on the security forces.
The Muslim insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir has claimed more than 34,000 lives since 1989.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebel groups in Kashmir. Islamabad denies the charge but extends open moral and diplomatic support to what it views as the Kashmiris' legitimate struggle for self-determination.
Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah told the Star News television channel late Sunday that the Ramadan cease-fire could be extended.
"We will continue with the cease-fire for many, many months as we hope that this will succeed in Ramadan," Abdullah said.
Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani ruled out a role for Pakistan in any talks with the Kashmiri militant groups, but called on Islamabad to support the cease-fire process.
"Pakistan should not lose this opportunity of ushering in a new era of goodwill and friendship in the region," Advani said.
The head of the Indian army's northern command, Lieutenant General H.M. Khanna, also urged militant outfits and their political wings to respond positively to Vajpayee's initiative.
"We must jointly make a success of this window of opportunity," Khanna said -- SRINAGAR (AFP)
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