ARNIA India/MUZAFFARABAD Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan said on Thursday it was capable of responding “befittingly” to Indian border shelling, and warned against an escalation of the worst fighting between the nuclear-armed rivals in more than a decade.
Nine Pakistani and eight Indian civilians have been killed since both sides’ security forces started heavy shelling more than a week ago along a 200-km (125-mile) stretch of border in the disputed, mostly Muslim region of Kashmir.
More were injured on Thursday. Both countries accused each other of starting the latest hostilities that have hit heavily populated civilian areas. India says it will not talk to Pakistan or stop firing until its neighbour backs down first.
“We do not want the situation on the borders of two nuclear neighbours to escalate into confrontation,” the Pakistan Ministry of Defence said in a statement. “India must demonstrate caution and behave with responsibility.”
Since they split 67 years ago, the nations have fought each other in three wars, two over Kashmir. There has not been a full-blown war since they both tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
Exchanges of sporadic fire are common along the de facto border dividing the region, despite a ceasefire pact signed in 2003. But the extent and intensity of the latest violence and the number of civilian deaths is unusual.
India earlier warned Pakistan it would pay an “unaffordable price” if it persisted with shelling and machine-gun fire across a heavily populated border area in the lowlands of Kashmir.
Both claim all of Kashmir’s Himalayan mountains and fertile valleys. Their shared border is among the most heavily militarized in the world and travel between the two nations is kept to a minimum.
Defence Minister Arun Jaitley called Pakistan an “aggressor” and accused it of making unprovoked attacks on Indian-controlled Kashmir. He threatened heavy retaliation.
“If Pakistan persists with this adventurism then our forces will continue to fight,” Jaitley told a news conference in New Delhi. “The cost of this adventurism will be unaffordable.” He did not give more details.
Pakistan’s Major General Khan Tahir Javed Khan, responsible for the section of the border where the violence has broken out, said that India had fired 20,000 shells so far this year, compared to just 200 in 2012.
He also said he had been trying to meet his Indian counterpart since the exchanges of fire began, but they would not return his calls.
Since late on Wednesday, 13 people including three Indian border security guards were injured in firing from Pakistan, a senior Indian police official in Kashmir said.
This is the first major fighting with Pakistan that India’s nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dealt with since taking office in May. It comes after weeks of destabilising anti-government protests in Pakistan and just a few days ahead of Indian state elections, for which Modi has been campaigning.
“I don’t need to speak, our guns will do it. We have responded with courage to ceasefire violations,” Modi said at a campaign rally on Thursday, replying to opposition criticism that he had not been vocal during the crisis.
One senior Indian army officer in Kashmir said the violence suited both sides, with Pakistan’s army taking a more assertive role in politics and India’s Modi, ahead of state polls, fulfilling his promise of a more muscular foreign policy.
The officer declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“People know my intentions very well. I don’t have to spell it out,” said Modi. “We have displayed our strength very well.”
Jaitley appeared to rule out initiating talks to end heavy mortar fire falling on border posts and villages that have flourished on both sides in recent years thanks to the long lull in fighting.
“How can we have talks when firing is on?” he said.
Since the fighting broke out four days ago there has only been one telephone call between the two militaries. The usual way to stop clashes is to call a meeting of senior officials at the border, but no such meeting has been held this time.
There was intermittent fire on Thursday.
India has for years accused Muslim Pakistan of backing separatist Muslim rebels in India’s part of Kashmir. Pakistan denies arming the militants saying it only gives them diplomatic support in the face of human rights abuses by Indian forces.
Almost 20,000 Indian civilians have fled their homes in the lowlands around India’s Jammu region to escape the fighting, taking refuge in schools and relief camps.
“When will this stop?” said Ram Lal, 65, in Arnia, the village worst affected by shelling on the Indian side. Lal’s wife had a bandaged arm after sustaining a small injury when two shells landed early on Thursday.
“We should have it out once and for all. What’s the use of dying each day like this? Have a full-scale war and be done with it,” Lal said, surveying walls pock-marked by shrapnel on his two-storey house. A nearby car had its windows shattered.
On the Pakistan side of the border, villagers moved among piles of debris from walls and roofs of their homes destroyed by mortar shells.
“The way Indian troops are indiscriminately shelling the civilian populations on our side, I am afraid there will be many more casualties,” said Chaudhry Latif Akbar, a local Pakistani official in Kashmir.
India held a meeting on Wednesday of its top security officials to discuss how to handle the conflict. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called a similar meeting on Friday.
Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Additional reporting by Rupam Jain Nair, Andrew MacAskill and Islamabad bureau; Editing by Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White