Tension escalates on India-Pakistan border

12 dead and 40,000 displaced as neighbors trade fire in disputed Kashmir region
Tension escalates on India-Pakistan border

Indian soldiers in Kashmir's frontier district of Kupwara patrol the 740-kilometer Line of Control, a de facto border dividing the disputed region amid continuous skirmishes. (Photo by Umer Asif/ucanews.com)

More than 40,000 villagers have fled their homes since Indian and Pakistani soldiers began exchanging fire across their borders, raising concerns over the traumatized lives of common people in the violence-hit region.

At least 12 people including seven civilians have been killed in skirmishes since Jan. 18 across the Line of Control, a military demarcation agreed by both nations across Kashmir.

The exchange of fire become heavier on Jan. 19, forcing India's Jammu and Kashmir state to sound a red alert asking people in frontier areas to move out of their homes and take shelter in government safe houses. 

Local media reports said 40,000 people have fled border areas, bringing normal life to a grinding halt as they have abruptly left regular activities of schooling, farming and cattle rearing.

"Villages in the border area of Jammu province are dark and deserted. The area is being continuously shelled. The people fled to safety," the government advisory said.

Local leaders such as Bishop Ivan Pereira of Jammu–Srinagar Diocese have expressed concern over the mounting tension between the nuclear-powered South Asian rivals.

"The situation is worrisome as precious human lives are getting lost. We pray that such hostilities between both sides end soon," Bishop Pereira told ucanews.com.

The simmering tension increased after Pakistan started heavy shelling, according to India. However, Pakistani officials claim India fired first in a violation of a 2003 ceasefire agreement.

India often accuses Pakistan of supporting an insurgency in the Indian part of Kashmir, an allegation Pakistan has consistently denied.

India also accuses Pakistan of supporting "a freedom struggle" in Indian Kashmir against Indian administration. Some groups have also taken up arms in an effort to separate Kashmir from India.

The conflict dates back to 1947 when India and Pakistan become separate states after British rule ended. Both countries claim Kashmir in full and have fought at least three wars and countless skirmishes over it.

Calls to end violence and stress dialogue have come from leaders, including church officials. Past talks have failed to find a lasting solution and recent efforts have been a non-starter because of the pre-conditions of both nations.

"Dialogue is the best way to achieve results without shedding blood and without creating any animosity. We urge both countries to talk as violence is not a solution to any issue," Bishop Pereira said.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the people of her state had suffered most because of the conflict.

"We want both countries to end hostilities. Incidents of shelling are proof that the people of the state are the worst victims of acrimony between the neighboring countries," Mufti said. 

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Kashmir's separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani also appealed to both nations to demonstrate restraint and play a constructive role in achieving a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue. 

"War and inconsistencies are not options. Instead, they cause devastation and destruction. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear countries and any flare-up can prove detrimental," Geelani said in a statement. 

According to government data, 583 incidents of firing on borders were recorded in 2014, with 405 in 2015 and 449 in 2016 before leaping to 881 in the first 11 months of 2017.

From 2014 to November 2017, 55 civilians and 44 soldier have been killed on Kashmir's borders. 

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