Kashmir: Civilians flee as border clashes continue

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Hundreds of people have fled their homes

Hundreds of villagers are fleeing their homes in Indian-administered Kashmir as Indian and Pakistani troops continue to exchange fire in some of the worst violence in the region in a decade.

At least 16 people have been killed since violence began last Friday - nine of them Pakistani and seven Indian.

Both sides have accused each other of starting the hostilities.

A ceasefire agreed in 2003 remains in place, but the neighbours often accuse each other of violating it.

The latest round of hostilities come just months after India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration.

But relations have deteriorated since then.

In August, India cancelled talks with Pakistan after accusing it of interfering in its internal affairs.

And last month, Mr Modi, in his first speech at the UN, said he wanted peace talks with Pakistan but insisted it must create an "appropriate atmosphere".

At the scene: Sanjoy Majumder on the disputed border

Image source, AP

The village of Mahashay Kothe in Arnia resembles a ghost town.

The narrow mud lanes are empty, the houses abandoned. Only some cattle and a couple of dogs remain.

The roof of one of the houses has shattered under the impact of a mortar shell. The yellow walls are pockmarked with shrapnel.

Four members of a family were killed here. They were sleeping out in the open when the village came under fire.

"One person died instantly," one of the neighbours tell me. "I could hear a woman crying out for help. But by the time it arrived, she too had died."

The village is right on the border - Pakistan just a kilometre away and visible from this side.

On Wednesday, Indian officials said at least two people, including a woman, had been killed and 20 others - including three soldiers - injured by gunfire and mortar bombs from the Pakistani side.

Some 1,500 people had fled their homes along the disputed border to shelters, they added.

"It's a voluntary thing. Otherwise the entire border population is vulnerable," Shantmanu, a senior official in Indian-administered Kashmir, told AFP news agency.

Reports said many had taken shelter in schools, while some had moved into army bunkers.

A villager in the affected Arnia area in Jammu said she had no idea when she would be able to leave the shelter.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Many villagers have taken shelter in army bunkers

"Is there no end to it? When will we return to our homes? Our cattle, our only source of income, will die unattended," Rano Devi told the Hindustan Times newspaper.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh said India would "not tolerate such acts of border violations by Pakistan" and that "ceasefire violations must stop".

Pakistani officials said at least three people were killed and four others were injured in Sialkot when they were hit by shells fired by Indian forces late on Tuesday.

AFP quoted a reporter in the area as saying that intermittent firing was continuing and many residents had fled their homes.

Kashmir, claimed by both countries in its entirety, has been a flashpoint for more than 60 years and the South Asian rivals have fought two wars and a limited conflict over the region.