SRINAGAR, India, Sept 30 (Reuters) - India has evacuated more than 10,000 villagers living near the border with Pakistan, amid concerns that there could be a military escalation after its special forces launched a cross-border operation against suspected militants.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ordered federal and state security forces to upgrade surveillance along the frontier in Jammu and Kashmir state, part of the 3,300-km (2,100 miles) border between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
The evacuation was launched after India said it had launched strikes across the Line of Control, or de factor border, into Pakistan-ruled Kashmir against suspected militants preparing to carry out attacks in India.
The highly unusual announcement on Thursday of what India called “surgical strikes” raised the possibility of military escalation between the rivals that could wreck a 2003 Kashmir ceasefire.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir, each controlling part of the territory but claiming it in full.
In Pakistan, the Indian version of events was met with scepticism, with television news channels and newspapers reporting that such surgical strikes had not taken place. They reported small arms and mortar fire, which is a relatively routine occurrence on the heavily militarised Line of Control.
Pakistan’s Express Tribune, an affiliate of the New York Times, led its edition with the headline “‘Surgical’ farce blows up in India’s face”.
“These are India’s diversionary tactics... If they actually do an act like this, our army is ready,” Sartaj Aziz, the country’s foreign policy chief, told local television channel Geo TV ahead of a cabinet meeting to be chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday.
Hundreds of villages were being cleared along a 15 km (9 mile) strip that runs along the border in the lowland region of Jammu and near the Line of Control further north in the mountains of Kashmir.
“Our top priority is to move women and children to government buildings, guest houses and marriage halls,” said Nirmal Singh, deputy chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
“People who have not been able to migrate were instructed not to venture out of their houses early in the morning or late in the night.”
Domestic pressure had been building on Modi to retaliate after 19 soldiers were killed in a Sept. 18 attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir that India blames on infiltrators who crossed from Pakistani territory.
A senior leader of Modi’s nationalist ruling party declared himself satisfied with India’s “multi-pronged” response to the attack on the army base.
“For Pakistan, terrorism has come as a cheaper option all these years. Time to make it costly for it,” Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, wrote in a column for the Indian Express newspaper.
Modi’s government has been struggling to contain protests on the streets of Kashmir where more than 80 civilians have been killed and thousands wounded in the last 10 weeks after a young seperatist militant was killed by Indian forces.
Farmer Rakesh Singh, 56, who lives in the Arnia sector of Jammu, said his family were among the first to leave home because his village was within range of Pakistan’s artillery.
“We suffer the most,” he said. “It is nothing new for us.”
Additional reporting by Asad Hashim in Islamabad; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Nick Macfie