Pause in India-Pakistan fighting brings respite for civilians

Pakistan says war with India ‘not an option’ and sides must work to defuse Kashmir conflict

Villagers sit on debris from their house after it was damaged during  exchanges of fire between Pakistan and India at the Pakistani border town of Dhamala Hakimwala, near Sialkot.  Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Villagers sit on debris from their house after it was damaged during exchanges of fire between Pakistan and India at the Pakistani border town of Dhamala Hakimwala, near Sialkot. Photograph: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

 

Fighting between India and Pakistan paused today after days of heavy shelling and gun battles across their disputed Himalayan border in Kashmir - the worst skirmishes between the nuclear-armed rivals in more than a decade.

Despite escalating tensions, Pakistan said war with India was not an option and that both sides should work to try and defuse the conflict.

The lull came a day after a heated exchange of rhetoric, with New Delhi warning Pakistan it would pay an “unaffordable price” if shelling and machine-gun fire continued. Islamabad had said it was capable of responding “fittingly” to aggression.

Nine Pakistani and eight Indian civilians have been killed since both sides’ security forces started firing more than a week ago along a 200km (125 mile) stretch of border in mostly Muslim Kashmir.

“It was calm along the Jammu border during the night, there was no firing in any of the sectors,” said Uttam Chand, an Indian police officer, referring to the southern, predominantly Hindu part of the region.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. Their shared border is among the most heavily militarised in the world and travel between the two areas is severely restricted.

Mutual capability

In Islamabad, the National Security Committee “stressed the fact that both countries are aware of each other’s capabilities. War is not an option,” prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said in a statement after chairing a committee meeting.

“It is shared responsibility of the leadership of both countries to immediately defuse the situation,” it said.

“The committee expressed the resolve that any attempt to challenge Pakistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be responded to with full force. The Armed Forces assured the National Security Committee that they are fully prepared to deal with any adversity at our borders.”

Almost 20,000 Indian civilians have fled their homes in the lowlands around India’s Jammu region to escape the fighting, taking refuge in schools and relief camps.

Civilians living in the area hit hardest by the shelling expressed relief at the halt in firing.

“We hope calm prevails and the border shooting ends,” said Avtar Singh (45), after taking refuge in a nearby school. “Our condition in this school is very bad. We want to go back to our homes.”

Both countries have accused each other of starting the latest hostilities that have hit civilian areas. India says it will not talk to Pakistan nor stop firing until its neighbour backs down first.

Exchanges of sporadic fire are common along the de facto border dividing the region, despite a ceasefire pact signed in 2003. But the extent and intensity of the latest violence and the number of civilian deaths is unusual.

Reuters