India's army chief turns up heat on Pakistan, says can retaliate

NEW DELHI Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:40am GMT

India's army chief General Bikram Singh (C) arrives at the Indian Peacekeeping Force Memorial for a commemoration ceremony in Colombo December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

India's army chief General Bikram Singh (C) arrives at the Indian Peacekeeping Force Memorial for a commemoration ceremony in Colombo December 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's army chief held out the threat of retaliating against Pakistan for the killing of two soldiers at the de facto border in Kashmir, saying he had asked his ground commanders to be aggressive in the face of provocation.

General Bikram Singh's strong remarks on Monday, amid mounting public anger at the alleged decapitation of one of the slain soldiers, appeared set to ratchet up tensions further with Pakistan, although analysts said a breakdown in ties was highly unlikely.

Islamabad blames India for the latest crisis in ties.

The two nations have fought three wars, two over Kashmir, since independence in 1947 and are now both nuclear-armed.

Terming the beheading of the soldier as "gruesome", Singh told a news conference: "We reserve the right to retaliate at a time and place of our choosing."

Last week's fighting was the worst outbreak of violence in Kashmir, the Himalayan region both nations claim, since the two sides agreed a ceasefire nine years ago

Both armies have lost two soldiers each in the fighting along parts of the 740-km (460-mile) ceasefire line this month. The head of one of soldiers was severed, New Delhi said, inflaming tempers in the country and prompting his family to start a hunger strike demanding that the remains be brought back.

"The attack on January 8 was premeditated, a pre-planned activity. Such an operation requires planning, detailed reconnaissance," Singh said.

His remarks which came hours before local commanders met at a crossing point on the ceasefire line for the first time since the fighting erupted to try and reduce tensions.

There was no immediate word on what happened at the meeting.

Singh said the Indian army would honour the ceasefire in Kashmir, so long as Pakistan did, but would respond immediately to any violation of the truce.

"I expect all my commanders at the Line of Control to be both aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation and fire," he said.

Pakistan has termed the Indian allegations as propaganda and blamed it for violations on the ceasefire line.

The ceasefire in Kashmir has held since it went into effect in November 2003, surviving even the downturn in ties after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008 by Pakistan-based militant group.

Analysts said it was unlikely the two armies would escalate the situation further and that Singh's remarks may well be addressed both to maintain the morale of his troops as well to respond to public anger over the mutilation of the bodies.

The family members of the slain Indian soldier, Hemraj Singh, have launched a hunger strike demanding retribution and that his severed head be back brought back. The family is not related to the army chief.

"Our demand is not something big. My brother's head should be brought back and the Pakistanis should be taught a lesson," said Jai Singh in their village in northern India.

The flare-up began on Jan 6 when Islamabad accused Indian soldiers of entering its territory and killing a soldier. India said Pakistani soldiers intruded about 600 metres (yards) into its territory two days later and killed two Indian soldiers on patrol, the attack the army chief was referring to.

Pakistan said one of its soldiers was killed in further fighting on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Satarupa Bhattacharjya; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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