Kashmiri militants little fazed by quake

NEW DELHI – After the earthquake hit South Asia a year ago, Indian officials were hopeful that nature had done what their army could not: destroy safe houses, weapons caches and training camps used by Islamic militants fighting for control of Kashmir.

A year after the Oct. 8, 2005, quake, it has become clear the initial assessments that the disaster had dealt a potentially crippling blow to the 17-year insurgency were wildly optimistic.

In the intervening months, militants with loose ties to al-Qaida have carried out shootings and bombings across India, from Kashmiri villages to major cities.

Across the frontier in Pakistan’s part of Kashmir, groups labeled as terrorist organizations by the United States and the United Nations have run extensive relief efforts, bolstering their popularity among Kashmiris.

There’s little doubt the militants sustained losses in the earthquake, which killed more than 80,000 people, the majority in Pakistani Kashmir, where many of the insurgents are based.

A temporary cease-fire called by some insurgent groups shortly after the temblor fueled speculation that they had suffered badly.

But the militants have deep roots in Kashmir, an overwhelmingly Muslim land of towering peaks and deep valleys where they have been fighting since 1989 to win independence for India’s two-thirds of the region or see it merged with Pakistan’s portion.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the militants acted quickly to feed and clothe the destitute and dig the dead from the rubble so they could be hurriedly buried in keeping with Islamic law. Later, they helped rebuild Kashmir’s communities, even advertising their work on billboards.

“We saw mujahedeen everywhere after the quake,” said Zarina Bib, a 38-year-old in Muzaffrabad, the main city in Pakistan’s part of the divided territory. “They are still running medical camps and providing free food to needy people.”

Another Kashmiri, 45-year-old shop owner Khalid Mahmood, said militants from the Jamaat al-Dawat group pulled the body of his son from the rubble.

“I will always remember the way mujahedeen helped me,” he said from Muzaffrabad, most of which was leveled in the quake.

The Islamic insurgency has killed more than 68,000 Kashmiris in the region split between Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan. The nuclear-armed rivals have also fought two wars over Kashmir since the subcontinent’s partition following independence from Britain in 1947.

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