(Reuters) – Five civilians were killed and thousands took refuge in camps in the disputed region of Kashmir on Wednesday after some of the most intense fighting between nuclear-armed neighbours Pakistan and India in a decade.
A total of nine Pakistani and eight Indian civilians have been killed since fighting erupted more than week ago in the mostly Muslim Himalayan region. Kashmir is claimed by both countries and has been a major focus of tension in South Asia.
Each side has accused the other of targeting civilians and unprovoked violations of a border truce that has largely held since 2003.
While exchanges of sporadic fire are common along the de facto border dividing the region, civilian deaths are unusual. Three Pakistani and two Indian civilians were killed on Wednesday.
“We are all concerned and want an early solution to it (the fighting),” India’s Air Chief Arup Raha told reporters. “We don’t want to let the issue become serious.”
A senior border security force official said Indian forces had retaliated to machine gun and mortar attacks on about 60 positions along a more than 200-km (125-mile) stretch of the border on Wednesday.
Some 18,000 Indian civilians have fled their homes in the lowlands around Jammu due to the fighting, and have taken refuge in schools and relief camps.
“If India and Pakistan troops have hostility, let them fight. What have we done to them?” said Gharo Devi, 50, in Arnia, where five civilians were killed on Monday. Devi had taken refuge in a school, closed because of the fighting.
In Pakistan, Muhammad Rafiq, a 48-year-old farmer, said he narrowly escaped death when a mortar hit his home, causing the mud and straw roof to cave in and blasting his bed into a twisted heap while he was in the washroom.
“I was so scared I locked myself in,” he said, holding the metal propeller of the mortar that fell on his home. “Firing has been going on every night. My family cannot stay here.”
Two boys and their grandmother were killed by a mortar as they slept just down the street, he added. The home was littered with bloody bedclothes. The younger child, a 3-year-old boy, was beheaded by the blast, neighbours said.
Pakistani Major General Khan Tahir Javed Khan said the number of mortar rounds and bullets fired had surged in recent weeks.
“It is the most intense in decades,” Khan said of the fighting. “My message to them would be please de-escalate.”
POLITICS WEIGHS HEAVILY
The fighting comes at a time of changing power dynamics in South Asia, with Pakistan’s army taking a more assertive role in politics and India’s new nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising a more muscular foreign policy.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been weakened by opposition protests that started in August. He won the army’s backing but in the process ceded space to the generals on some issues, including relations with India.
Modi is following through on a promise to take a harder line with Pakistan in its border disputes after being elected in May. Although Sharif came to Modi’s inauguration, the Indian leader has since cancelled a round of talks with Pakistan, and in a further snub did not meet Sharif at a U.N. meeting in New York in September.
“This unrest is a logical consequence of worsening political relations between India and Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“What’s particularly worrisome is that Pakistan’s military appears to now be in the driver’s seat of India policy – and the military has much less enthusiasm for reconciliation.”
In most cases India blames outbreaks of fighting along the border on Pakistani troops they say give cover to separatist militants trying to enter India’s part of Kashmir. India claimed to have killed three militants on Monday.
Pakistan says India’s military is abusing the human rights of Muslim Kashmiris.