Thousands flee homes in Indian-held Kashmir to escape firing

AP News
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Posted: Jan 06, 2015 7:25 AM
Thousands flee homes in Indian-held Kashmir to escape firing

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Thousands of villagers in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have fled their homes because of artillery battles between Indian and Pakistani soldiers along the highly militarized border, officials said Tuesday.

Authorities have evacuated more than 6,000 people to relief camps as of Tuesday, nearly a week after the shelling broke out, said Shantmanu, a senior official in Indian-held Kashmir. About 4,000 other people have fled their homes and are staying with relatives, he said.

At least a dozen people have been killed in the border skirmishes.

While there was no shelling reported Tuesday, tensions have heightened along the 200-kilometer (125-mile) border that India and Pakistan share in Kashmir, the Himalayan region claimed by both countries and divided between them. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over control of Kashmir since they won independence from Britain in 1947.

Indian officials have set up about 20 relief camps where food and medical care is available to villagers, many of whom fled their homes with no belongings.

Many residents said they fled their homes as mortar fire began landing in border villages.

"We were very frightened as bullets and shells were raining from all sides," said Kamal Singh, a construction worker. "We somehow managed to flee to a safer place," he said in a telephone interview. Singh said he and his family fled from Baniglad village and have been staying at a government-run relief shelter for four days.

Paramilitary officials said the shelling went on until midnight at numerous places along the border. "About two dozen Indian forward border posts were under attack," said D. Parekh of the Border Security Force.

While New Delhi and Islamabad each blame the other for starting the violence, border residents said both are responsible.

"The two governments want to settle their scores and we are the ones who always suffer," said Raj Chowdhry, a resident of Bobyia village, speaking from a relief camp.

Chowdhry said he was worried about his elderly parents who stayed behind. "My parents couldn't leave as they're too old. I don't know if they're all right," he said.

Some villagers refused to move.

"What's the point of leaving the village? This has been going on for decades. I've gotten used to it," said Bishen Das, an 80-year old farmer who stayed in Baniglad, a village near an Indian border post that came under intense shelling.

"By staying here I can at least attend to the hapless cattle caught in a situation where even humans don't know what to do," Das said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the U.S. is concerned by the border tensions and encourages dialogue between India and Pakistan.

India says Pakistani troops committed more than 550 cease-fire violations in 2014, the most since the two nations signed an accord in 2003.

While minor skirmishes are common, an October cease-fire violation left nine civilians dead in Pakistan and nine in India.

India accuses Pakistan of sending militants into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir under the cover of the artillery, a charge Pakistan denies. Islamabad says it only gives the militants moral and diplomatic support.