DHAMALA HAKIMWALA, Pakistan (AP) — Troops trading heavy fire between Pakistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir have plunged civilians on both sides into grief with 18 villagers killed and dozens wounded this week, prompting many to question how two nations committed to a 2003 cease-fire could be targeting civilians while trading blame about who started shooting first.
Iram Shazadi was making breakfast for her family Monday when bullets started whizzing through her dusty Pakistani village of Dhamala Hakimwala — about half a kilometer (quarter mile) from the border with the Indian-administered portion of the disputed Himalayan region. A mortar shell fired by Indian border forces slammed into her home and killed her mother-in-law and two sons, aged 5 and 8.
"I lost my whole world," the injured 30-year-old said Wednesday at a military hospital in Sialkot. She sat crying next to her 6-year-old son, who narrowly escaped the blast.
On the Indian side, farmer Gulshan Kumar spent Tuesday night huddled with his family at home while mortars from Pakistan fell on his village of Chilyari.
"A shell landed in our neighbor's home, killing a 70-year-old woman and her 32-year-old daughter-in-law," Kumar told reporters.
The fighting over the past four nights marks the worst violation of the 2003 cease-fire accord brokered between India and Pakistan after several years of almost-day border battles, officials on both sides say.
While minor skirmishes have been somewhat common over the years, many were shocked that this week's fighting fell over the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and left civilian casualties — nine in Pakistan and nine in India. The tally includes two women killed early Thursday after fresh fighting erupted overnight, according to Press Trust of India.
Tens of thousands of villagers have fled their homes on both sides since Sunday night, when the violence first erupted along the 200-kilometer (125-mile) border between Pakistan's Punjab province and the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.
That lower-altitude frontier, guarded by paramilitary border forces, is lined on both sides by agricultural fields and ancient villages that have been there long before Pakistan and India gained independence in 1947 and began wrangling over Kashmir — fighting two of three wars over their rival claims to the mountainous region.
"We have a very serious situation at hand right now," said Shantmanu, an Indian administrator in the area who uses one name.
Panicked villagers on both sides said they were desperate for peace.
"I have been seeing these clashes since my childhood," said 35-year-old Rehmat Bibi in Dhamala Hakimwala, where homes are now pockmarked by bullet holes and streets are largely deserted. "We are living in a state of fear."
The clashes come despite stated desires by both governments on improving ties. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he wanted to engage Pakistan and even invited its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration in May. But relations remain hostile, and in August India canceled talks with Pakistan after its ambassador met with Kashmiri separatist leaders.
Analysts said the civilian tolls took this flare-up to a new level of seriousness.
"At the moment, both sides are digging their heels in, with no meeting of their army commanders scheduled," said defense analyst C. Uday Bhaskar of the New Delhi-based think tank, the Society for Policy Studies.
"We have a new government which wants to show that it means business," Bhaskar said. "The response has been more emphatic than what have we seen in the past five years. This is a matter of concern. Attacking civilians is becoming a new norm."
The U.N. Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan plans to visit the area, the Pakistani military said Tuesday after lodging a protest saying that Indian troops had fired first.
India has also accused Pakistan of starting this week's skirmishes, saying it wants to create a distraction to help separatist militants infiltrate into Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan has repeatedly denied this, saying it gives only moral and diplomatic support to separatist groups who have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan.
"We fail to understand why the Indians are targeting Pakistani civilian populations," said Maj. Gen. Khan Javed Khan of the Pakistani paramilitary border force. Indian officials have made similar comments, accusing the Pakistanis of focusing on civilian settlements.
Modi said Wednesday that "everything will be fine soon" but did not elaborate, according to Indian broadcaster CNN-IBN. A top official in his office, however, suggested Indians were feeling "proud" of the forceful response.
"Usually the civilian population is not targeted in this manner," Jitendra Singh said. "Pakistan has taken too long to understand that there is a change in the government in India. They are getting to learn it in a hard way."
Indian-controlled Kashmir is due to hold elections before December, and Kashmir's status — divided between India and Pakistan, while being claimed by both — is a hot-button issue with voters in the mostly Muslim province.
Terrified villagers on both sides say they are fed up with the cycle of violence.
In the Indian village of Regal, four tractors pulled carts carrying dozens of people fleeing Wednesday morning.
"Yet again we are fleeing our homes, leaving behind everything," Darshano Devi said.
Meanwhile, newly married Pakistani villager Baila Mustafa lay wounded alongside her injured husband in Sialkot hospital.
"Please allow us to live with peace," she said.
Hussain reported from Srinagar. Associated Press Writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, and Ashok Sharma and Katy Daigle in New Delhi contributed to this report.