SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Tens of thousands of villagers fled their homes in Kashmir on Monday, as Indian and Pakistani troops bombarded each other with gunfire and mortar shells over the border separating their portions of the disputed region. At least nine civilians were killed.
Indian officials said the flare-up left five villagers, including one child, dead and 35 injured on the Indian side of the border. The Pakistani army reported four civilians killed on its side, including two children, and three injured.
Monday's violence — one of the worst violations of a 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan — followed several meetings between the commanders of the two countries' border forces aimed at calming tensions. Two of the three wars between the nations have been fought over their competing claims to Kashmir, though the 2003 cease-fire has largely held despite small but regular skirmishes.
Each side accused the other of firing first before dawn, and each said its troops had only retaliated. Both sides said the violence was happening at several points along the border, including the designated frontier dividing Pakistan from the Indian-held Kashmir region of Jammu, as well as the U.N.-monitored line of control that slices through the mountainous region and divides it into an Indian-controlled portion and a Pakistan-administered territory.
"First we heard gunshots," said Akshit Kumar, a resident of Arnia, a town in Indian-controlled Kashmir. "But as the shelling started, that's when we decided to flee."
On the Indian side, officials were evacuating tens of thousands of people from Arnia and nearby villages to underground bunkers and government shelters.
A man said he was sleeping on the lawn outside his home on the outskirts of Arnia when a mortar shell landed and exploded at a nearby house, killing his neighbor and wounding five other people.
"There is panic," said Jammu's top administrator, Shantmanu, who goes by one name. "We're trying to give them a sense of security and temporary shelters."
Many saw the chaos as part of what's become a predictable cycle of violence in a region riven by decades-old animosities. A similar outburst of cross-border violence in August led about 15,000 villagers to flee temporarily.
Indian officials regularly accuse Pakistan of waging violence as a cover for separatist militants to infiltrate into the Indian side. Pakistan staunchly denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the militants and to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.
"They want to push more militants. We are keeping the utmost vigil," Indian army spokesman S.D. Goswami said.
Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Office blamed India for the violence, and said it had lodged a "strong protest."
Meanwhile, the Indian army said troops killed three suspected militants in an early morning gunbattle after spotting them moving through the forest in an uninhabited area called Tandhar, farther north along the Line of Control.
While the Line of Control is guarded by both the Indian and Pakistani armies, each country uses a separate paramilitary border force to guard the lower-altitude frontier, defined by coils of razor wire that snake across foothills marked by ancient villages, tangled bushes and fields of rice and corn.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was concerned about violence along the line of control. "We continue to encourage the governments of India and Pakistan to engage in further dialogue to address these issues," she told reporters Monday.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.