SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire across their frontier in Kashmir and, in a sign of increased tension, skipped their custom of exchanging sweets to mark the nuclear-armed rivals’ independence days.
Shelling and firing has flared along the disputed region’s de-facto border since August 6, when five Indian soldiers were ambushed and killed in a remote Himalayan district. India blamed the Pakistan army for the attack. Islamabad has denied any involvement.
Six civilians - including two young girls - were injured in Pakistan and three villagers were injured on the Indian side in Thursday’s tit-for-tat shelling across the so-called Line of Control (LoC) that divides the two countries in Kashmir, police and military officials said on Thursday.
President Pranab Mukherjee sounded a stern note in an independence day speech on Wednesday night, warning Pakistan: “Our commitment to peace is unfailing but even our patience has limits.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his annual dawn address from the ramparts of Delhi’s Mughal-era Red Fort, described last week’s killing of Indian soldiers as “a dastardly attack”.
“We will take all possible steps to prevent such incidents in the future,” he said.
Hindu-majority India and Islamic Pakistan have fought three wars since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which both claim in full but rule in part.
India’s independence day is August 15. Pakistan, which separated from India at the end of British rule, subsequently moved its independence day to August 14.
Infiltration and cross-border ambushes had become rare in recent years and, although artillery fire frequently rattles the LoC, the intense shelling of recent days has strained a ceasefire that had largely held for nearly a decade.
“There was no exchange of sweets at Aman Setu (Peace Bridge) today,” said Indian army officer Brigadier R.K. Singh, referring to a custom that soldiers from the two sides have observed on India’s independence day since a road between the Indian town of Srinagar and Pakistan’s Muzaffarabad was reopened in 2005.
Indian officials are concerned that Pakistan wants to redeploy militants back into Indian Kashmir as the war in Afghanistan comes to an end - a charge dismissed as nonsense by Pakistan’s government which denies backing any militants.
The renewed bitterness has cast doubt over preparations for what both sides see as a potentially breakthrough meeting between Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in New York in September.
Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Ron Askew