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Kashmiri separatists help cause with aid

JULLA, India -- Shaukat Khan hiked across a valley to collect food and supplies he thought were being handed out by authorities.

Instead, he found what thousands of others discovered after the massive earthquake that shattered their villages: a lot of help was coming from Kashmiri separatists on the Indian side of the disputed territory.

It's an aid effort that has not gone unnoticed in a land sharply opposed to Indian rule amid a 15-year insurgency that has claimed more than 66,000 lives, mostly civilians.

The Islamic rebel groups say they are only trying to help the needy but admit with some satisfaction that the tragedy could end up boosting their cause to wrest the bitterly disputed Himalayan region from mostly Hindu India.

''We are the ones who are here with blood, with food, with medicines -- the people can see that," said Yasin Malik, leader of the separatist Jammu and Kashmir and Liberation Front.

Or, as Hidayat-Ullah Sheikh of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a leading separatist alliance, put it: ''No one else is giving the people as much as we are giving."

In mountainside villages, members of the two groups have been handing out everything from milk to medicine as the Indian government and army have been slow in their relief efforts.

Within hours of the quake that devastated towns and villages on Saturday, separatists had started up what three days later remains the most visible aid operation in Indian Kashmir.

Malik said his group also has begun working with Pakistani counterparts on the other side of the heavily militarized frontier -- an artificial division of the beautiful region known for its apple orchards, gardens, and azure lakes.

''In some ways the separatist groups have won round one with their initial aid effort," said W.P.S. Sidhu, a Kashmir expert with the Geneva Center for Security Policy, a think tank based in the Swiss city.

''If the Indian establishment stays aloof and lets the separatists take initiatives . . . then I think the Indian state would have done itself irreversible damage," he said in a telephone interview.

Kashmir, a largely Muslim land, was a protectorate under British rule that remained nominally independent after the creation of India and Pakistan in a bloody partition of the subcontinent following independence in 1947.

But within a year, the two neighbors began a war that left India with two thirds of the region and Muslim Pakistan controlling the remainder. Both now claim it in its entirety.

For men like Malik, the quake has exposed the fiction of that division -- the two sides have for centuries shared a culture, language, and religion. Today, they share a tragedy, and, as far as the separatists are concerned, a relief effort.

''There are no Pakistanis or Indians here, just Kashmiris," he said on his way to the Uri valley, a border region that was hard-hit in the quake.

The idea of a single Kashmir is a long-cherished dream of many residents, and dozens of groups have openly campaigned for independence or a merger with Pakistan since the 1950s. Unarmed separatist groups enjoy broad support even if violent militant groups don't.

The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front also has an operational wing in Muzzaffarabad on the Pakistani side of the border and has strong ties with people there, as do other separatist groups, including some components of the Hurriyat.

The results of that struggle are clear in Indian Kashmir today, with at least half a million Indian troops peering at civilians from sandbagged bunkers, patrolling streets in green camouflage vehicles, or plotting strategies in garrisons dotting the state. Dozens of soldiers on both sides were killed in the quake.

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