CHATI SINGHPURA, India -- Gunmen lined up and fatally shot 40 Sikh villagers in India's disputed northern territory of Kashmir, police said today, casting a pall over the start of President Clinton's visit to the country.
No one claimed responsibility for Monday night's attack, but top Indian security officials said they suspected two militant groups -- Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hezb-ul Mujahedeen -- who are supported by the government of Pakistan.
Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups denied involvement, saying India was responsible for the shootings -- calculated to malign the separatist movement during Clinton's visit.
Also today, Kashmir rebels stormed an Indian paramilitary camp in Srinagar, Press Trust of India reported. At least two rebels armed with automatic weapons, believed to be members of a suicide squad, stormed into the camp and lobbed grenades, according to the report. Paramilitary troops surrounded a building at the camp and fired at the rebels, who were believed to be holed up inside.
The shootings Monday were the first major attack on Sikhs in Kashmir. Until now, the minority religious group has been spared from an Islamic rebellion that began a decade ago in the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan along an uneasy cease-fire line.
Concentrated in a handful of towns and villages, most Kashmiri Sikhs have remained neutral in the conflict, many of them running trucking companies that supply the remote region, the only Muslim-majority territory in otherwise Hindu-dominated India.
Indian army officers had warned they expected a major operation by pro-separatist militants as a way to focus attention on the Kashmir dispute during Clinton's visit.
Speaking at a joint news conference in New Delhi with Clinton, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called the attack an act of ''ethnic cleansing.''
''We have the means and the will to eliminate this menace,'' he said.
Clinton also expressed outrage at ''the brutal attack in Kashmir,'' and said it highlighted ''the tremendous suffering this conflict has caused India. The violence must end.''
The president has said that reducing tensions between India and Pakistan was a main objective of his visit to South Asia.
Pakistan and many Kashmiris want the United States to intervene to settle the conflict, which has caused two wars between India and Pakistan and has claimed at least 25,000 lives in 11 years of guerrilla insurgency.
In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar condemned the killings, accusing India of exploiting the tragedy for political purposes. He also called for New Delhi to conduct a quick and thorough investigation.
Although India has rejected outside arbitration of the dispute, it was likely to use Monday's killings to reinforce its previous demand that Washington help control the Pakistan-backed militants it claims are behind killings in Kashmir.
Speaking after signing a declaration of common goals with Vajpayee, Clinton said he would discuss terrorism in Pakistan, where he is scheduled to stop off briefly after leaving India on Saturday. He said he would urge Pakistan to respect the cease-fire line with India.
In Monday's attack, police in Kashmir said the gunmen, wearing combat uniforms, entered Chati Singhpura Mattan village late at night, forcing the residents into the street.
They separated the men from the women, announcing that they were conducting a ''crackdown.'' Indian security forces operate similarly when searching a neighborhood for militants.
Then the gunmen opened fire on the men, killing 37. Three others later died in the hospital, police said. Seventeen bodies lay crumpled outside the village gurudwara, or Sikh temple. The rest were killed near a cluster of houses 100 feet away.
''They brought out the males from their homes and shot them dead, point-blank,'' said A.K. Bhan, the director-general of police. He said the attackers spoke Urdu, the language common in both Kashmir and Pakistan.
The area of the Sikh village is controlled by armed Kashmiri groups that abandoned separatism and were recruited by the Indian army as an auxiliary counterinsurgency force.
In Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, 15,000 Sikhs blocked roads today to protest the killings. Many shouted slogans against India for failing to protect the region's minorities.
Vajpayee's security adviser, Brijesh Mishra, said India had evidence pointing to Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, but he declined to give details.
Indian Home Minister Lal Krishan Advani said the guerrillas were trying to drive Sikhs out of Kashmir, just as they had forced many Hindus to flee previously.
It was not a ''random kind of killing. It was a deliberate design,'' he told reporters.
''The brutal murder of Sikh youngsters is the work of Indian agencies to defame mujahedeen who are fighting for Kashmir's liberation,'' said Sayed Salahuddin, head of the United Jehad Council, an umbrella organization representing 12 Muslim militant groups fighting in Kashmir.
Yahya Mujahed, a spokesman for Lashkar-e-Tayyaba said: ''We have never attacked any civilians. It is our record that we only target (the) Indian military.''
India says 3,500 militants are operating in Kashmir, and that many were helped by the Pakistani army to slip across the cease-fire line that divides the territory between the two countries.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied giving active aid to the militants.
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