By Fayaz Bukhari
SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - India should talk to Pakistan and separatists in Kashmir to defuse tension arising from a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy that was claimed by Pakistan-based militants, a former chief minister of the state said.
Mehbooba Mufti, who was chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir from early 2014 to June last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party withdrew support for her regional party, said an ongoing crackdown on militants and those supporting secession could further alienate the people.
India has vowed to kill all the militants in the country's only Muslim-majority state if they do not give up arms, after a 20-year-old local man killed 40 paramilitary troopers in a suicide attack last month. Indian security forces have killed 18 militants in Kashmir since then, the army said on Monday.
The attack nearly led to another war between arch-rival India and Pakistan, both of which claim the Himalayan region in full but rule in part.
"I strongly feel that there has to be a dialogue process internally as well as externally, with Pakistan," Mufti said in an interview on Friday. "The situation is going to get worse if some kind of political process is not initiated on the ground now."
Indian officials have repeatedly ruled out talks with Pakistan unless it acts against militant groups based there. India says its warplanes late last month bombed a militant camp in Pakistan, which responded with an aerial attack the next day.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Washington with Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and told him the United States stands with India against terrorism.
"Secretary Pompeo and Foreign Secretary Gokhale discussed the importance of bringing those responsible for the attack to justice and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil," the State Department said in a statement.
Gokhale said on the day of the strike that it had killed many Jaish-e-Mohammed "terrorists". Pakistan said no one was killed.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has sought to speak with Modi amid the hostility, said no militant group would be allowed to operate from his country to carry out attacks abroad, days after his government announced a sweeping crackdown against Islamist militant organizations.
"This confrontational attitude - no talks, no discussion -has an impact," Mufti said. "Whatever relationship we have with Pakistan, it has a direct impact on Jammu and Kashmir and we are the worst sufferers of this animosity."
Indian authorities have arrested many separatist leaders in Kashmir in the past few weeks, and the chief of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said recently that the government had made it clear to them that "if they want to live in India, they will have to speak the language of India, not Pakistan's".
Mufti, whose father was also a chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said the tough stance by India would only lead to "some calm on the surface". India killed 248 militants in Kashmir in 2018 - the highest in a decade.
"Once you start choking the space for dissent in a democracy, people feel pushed to the wall and then it leads to further dissent and alienation," she said.
Mufti said India's general election - starting April 11 and whose results will be declared on May 23 - could delay the process of any inter-party talks on Kashmir.
Lieutenant-General Kanwal Jeet Singh Dhillon, India's top military commander in Kashmir, said on Monday that security forces had killed 10 local and eight foreign militants in the region in the past three weeks.
He said most of the dead were from Jaish-e-Mohammed, which claimed responsibility for the attack on the paramilitary convoy in the district of Pulwama on Feb. 14.
"Our main emphasis after the convoy attack was to eliminate the JeM leadership and we have been successful in that," he told a press conference in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state.
"We have reasonably succeeded in eliminating JeM militants so that a Pulwama-type attack does not take place."
(Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Nick Macfie)