SRINAGAR: Indian and Pakistani soldiers again targeted each other’s posts and villages along their volatile frontier in disputed Kashmir, killing at least six civilians and two Pakistani troops, officials said Saturday.
Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday, carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops. Pakistan retaliated, shooting down a fighter jet Wednesday and detaining its pilot, who was returned to India on Friday in a peace gesture.
Fighting resumed overnight Friday. Pakistan’s military said two of its soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire with Indian forces near the Line of Control that separates Kashmir between the rivals. It marked the first fatalities for Pakistani troops since Wednesday, when tensions dramatically escalated between the nuclear-armed neighbors over Kashmir, which is split between them but claimed by both in its entirety.
Indian police said two siblings and their mother were killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The three died after a shell fired by Pakistani soldiers hit their home in the Poonch region near the Line of Control. The children’s father was critically wounded.
In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, government official Umar Azam said Indian troops with heavy weapons “indiscriminately targeted border villagers” along the Line of Control, killing a boy and wounding three other people. He said several homes were destroyed by Indian shelling.
Following a lull of a few hours, shelling and firing of small arms resumed Saturday. A Pakistani military statement said two civilians were killed and two others wounded in the fresh fighting. The Indian army said Pakistani troops attacked Indian posts at several places along the militarized line.
Officials from both countries blamed each other for “unprovoked” violations of the 2003 cease-fire accord at several sectors along the Kashmir frontier, targeting army posts as well as villages.
Since tensions escalated following last month’s suicide attack, world leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war between India and Pakistan. The rivals have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir since their independence from British rule in 1947.
The current violence marks the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.
The latest wave of tensions began after the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 suicide bombing by a Kashmiri militant on Indian paramilitary forces. India has long accused Pakistan of cultivating such militant groups to attack it. Pakistan has said it was not involved in that attack and that it was ready to help New Delhi in the investigation.
On both sides of Kashmir, thousands of people have fled to government-run temporary shelters or relatives’ homes in safer areas to escape deadly and relentless shelling along the frontier. Many of these villages dot the rugged and mountainous frontier, which is marked by razor wire, watch towers and bunkers amid tangled bushes, forests and fields of rice and corn.
“These battles are fought on our bodies, in our homes and fields, and we still don’t have anything in our hands. We are at the mercy of these soldiers,” said Mohammed Akram, a resident in the Mendhar area in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Sakina, a young woman who fled to a shelter with her two children, said the frequent shelling had made them “homeless in our own land.”
In Pakistani-administered Kashmir, many displaced families urged the international community to help resolve the issue of Kashmir so that they can live peacefully.
“Whenever India fires mortars, it’s we who suffer,” said Mohammad Latif, a laborer who took refuge at a government building that was vacated for sheltering displaced families.
“I don’t care whether the Indian pilot is gone or not, I don’t care who released him and why, but I want to know whether peace will return to us after his return to India,” said Mohammad Sadiq, a shopkeeper who also was among the displaced. He said the latest tensions between Pakistan and India rose so suddenly that some people sold their sheep, cows and buffaloes at throwaway prices in his native Chikothi town.
“We did not know whether we will get any shelter and how could we take our animals” with us, he said.
People living along the Line of Control keep bunkers near their homes, but residents say they cannot spend day and night in them.
Meanwhile, Indian police said two paramilitary soldiers and two counterinsurgency police officials were killed in a gun battle with militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, while troops fatally shot a civilian during anti-India protests.
Rebel groups have been fighting Indian rule since 1989 and demand that Kashmir be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.