India has warned its nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan to stop what New Delhi calls “unprovoked firing and shelling”, after escalating tensions along the line of control in the disputed Himalayan province of Kashmir claimed the lives of 17 civilians over the past few days.
Arun Jaitley, India’s defence minister, warned of harsh consequences of continuing violations of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries.
“Pakistan in these attacks has clearly been the aggressor but it must realise that our deterrent will be credible,” Mr Jaitley said. “If Pakistan persists with this adventurism, our forces will make the costs of this adventurism unaffordable.”
Fighting erupted more than a week ago at a 125km stretch along the line of control in Kashmir, a stunningly beautiful Muslim-majority region that both India and Pakistan claim as their own.
So far nine Pakistani and eight Indian civilians have been killed in the firing and shelling, while 20,000 Indian civilians in the lowland Jammu region have fled their homes fearing worse to come. Civilians on the Pakistani side are also said to have fled.
Analysts said the exchange of gunfire and mortar shells was the heaviest fighting along the line of control since the 2003 ceasefire, signed after the two nuclear-armed neighbours came to the brink of full conflict.
Indian security analysts believe the Pakistani army is seeking to test the relatively new administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and provide cover for militants to sneak into the restive Indian-administered Kashmir. “It is an effort by Pakistan to precipitate tension where none existed,” Mr Jaitley said.
However, Pakistani officials insisted the blame for the escalating tension lay with Mr Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party, which has traditionally taken a tougher line on issues of national security than the previously ruling Congress party.
The growing exchange of fire “seemed to confirm our worst nightmare”, a senior Pakistani foreign ministry official told the FT. “Mr Modi is determined to destroy whatever little chance there was of improving relations.”
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, already under strong political pressure at home after persistent anti-government protests led by cricket-star-turned politician Imran Khan, has summoned the chiefs of the army, navy and air force, as well as key ministers, for a meeting on Friday to discuss the deteriorating security situation.
Mr Modi, who was seen as likely to take a tough stance towards Pakistan, surprised both supporters and detractors by inviting Mr Sharif, along with other leaders of India’s south Asian neighbours, to attend his swearing-in ceremony in May.
The invitation, Mr Sharif’s acceptance and the reported rapport between the two democratically elected leaders raised hopes they could bring about a substantial improvement in their two countries’ relations, which had been in deep freeze since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, carried out by Pakistan-based Islamic militants.
But hopes of progress were scuttled in August when India abruptly cancelled peace talks with Pakistan, amid anger over an invitation by Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi, to Kashmiri separatist leaders for “consultations” ahead of the proposed Islamabad meetings.
While the current round of firing and shelling has made life miserable for civilians on both sides of the boundary, G Parthasarathy, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, said he believed the tensions would subside.
“At some stage or another this will cool off,” he said. “This will continue for a couple of days and then the snows will set in and everyone will want to go inside to a heater.”
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