Srinagar: India said a group of militants from Pakistan killed five of its soldiers in an ambush along the disputed border in Kashmir on Tuesday, an accusation that threatens to derail efforts to resume peace talks.
Pakistan rejected the allegation, saying there had been no exchange of fire along the heavily militarised border in Kashmir, the cause of two of three wars between the nuclear rivals. It said it was committed to a decade-old ceasefire and wanted to restart talks.
But the attack, one of the worst since the 2003 truce along the Line of Control (LoC) in the Himalayan region, puts the Indian government under pressure to respond aggressively as it heads into a tough election next year.
While tit-for-tat attacks along the border are common, defence analysts said they did not expect the killings to trigger large-scale retaliation by India.
"It is in the interest of both of these nuclear-armed countries to ratchet this down," said Harsh Pant, an expert on Indian foreign and security policy at King's College London.
India summoned Pakistan's deputy envoy to New Delhi and lodged a protest over the killings in the Poonch region of Kashmir, officials said.
"The ambush was carried out by approximately 20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan Army uniforms," Defence Minister A.K. Antony told parliament.
Earlier his ministry in a statement had directly accused the Pakistani army of launching the attack alongside militants, but it subsequently withdrew the allegation, which could have escalated tensions between the rivals.
Troops were on heightened alert along the 740-km (460-mile) Line of Control, according to an Indian army colonel in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.
The attack came just days after a botched attempt to bomb the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, a country where India and Pakistan are competing for influence.
SOLDIERS WERE ON PATROL
Indian army sources said the latest attack took place in the early hours of Tuesday about 450 m (500 yards) inside Indian territory, where six soldiers were on patrol. One soldier was wounded.
"I assure the house that our army is fully ready to take all necessary steps to uphold the sanctity of the LoC," Antony said.
The killings caused an uproar in parliament and a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Yashwant Sinha, said the Indian army should give a "befitting reply" to Pakistan. He called on the government to abandon planned talks with Islamabad.
Dozens of BJP supporters protested outside Antony's New Delhi residence and police used water cannons to disperse them.
India says Pakistan-based militants are trying to breach the Kashmir border in increasing numbers, reinforcing Indian fears that these groups are turning their focus to Kashmir as foreign troops begin to leave Afghanistan.
But the Pakistan Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations about the latest incident as baseless and said it hoped to begin talks soon. These were called off in January after two Indian soldiers were killed in a clash on the border. One of the bodies was mutilated, according to Indian officials.
"Pakistan is committed to a constructive, sustained and result-oriented process of engagement with India and looks forward to an early resumption of the dialogue process," the ministry said in a statement.
Islamabad has also been pushing for a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - who made better ties with India a theme in his election campaign in May - and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September, Indian officials said.
"It would be fruitless at this point to negotiate with the PMLN (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz)," said K.C. Singh, a former Indian ambassador.
ATTACK AIMED AT SABOTAGING PEACE TALKS?
New Delhi has sought to engage Pakistan's civilian leadership and support