New Delhi, India, Aug 15 – Five people were killed in cross-border fire between India and Pakistan, officials said Thursday, amid heightened tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals since New Delhi controversially stripped contested Kashmir of its autonomy.
Skirmishes are frequent across the so-called Line of Control (LoC), but the latest deaths came after Pakistan warned it was ready to meet any Indian aggression over Kashmir.
Officials in the part of Kashmir ruled by Pakistan said Thursday that three soldiers died in Indian shelling across the Line of Control, the de facto border, and two others were killed in a separate incident.
The Pakistani military also claimed its return fire killed five Indian soldiers. But an Indian army spokesman told the Press Trust of India late Thursday the deaths were “fictitious”.
Another Indian military official told the news agency Pakistani troops fired mortar shells and small arms across the border.
The clashes came as diplomats told AFP the United Nations Security Council was scheduled to discuss India’s move to strip Kashmir of its autonomy at a meeting behind closed doors on Friday.
Pakistan earlier this week formally asked the Security Council to hold an emergency session to address the situation.
Earlier Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed his “pathbreaking” move to strip Kashmir of its autonomy during a major speech at Independence Day celebrations.
Parts of Kashmir that India controls — it is split with arch-rival Pakistan — have been under lockdown since August 4, with freedom of movement restricted and phones and the internet cut.
A day later, New Delhi scrapped Article 370 in the Indian constitution that had granted Kashmir special autonomy, splitting the state of Jammu and Kashmir in two and downgrading their status to union territories.
In a speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in Delhi, Modi said “fresh thinking” was needed after seven decades of failure to ensure harmony in the picturesque but tragic former Himalayan kingdom, where tens of thousands have died in the past 30 years.
“We do not believe in creating problems or prolonging them. In less than 70 days of the new government, Article 370 has become history. And in both houses of parliament, two-thirds of the members supported this step,” said Modi, 68.
“The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption and nepotism, as well as injustice when it came to rights of women, children, (low-caste) Dalits, tribal communities.”
– Extra troops –
Fearing unrest over India’s latest move, tens of thousands of extra Indian troops have been deployed to Kashmir — joining 500,000 already there — turning parts of the main city of Srinagar into a fortress of roadblocks and barbed wire.
Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium, where the main Independence Day ceremonies were held in Srinagar, was cordoned off by security personnel, with drones and helicopters monitoring the area.
There were few locals at the ceremony, with most of the spectators from the government or security forces, an AFP reporter in Srinagar said.
Hundreds of artists and students from Hindu-majority Jammu, a major city south of Srinagar, were ferried in on buses and planes to perform at the function.
Kashmiri politicians were missing from the event. The politicians, alongside university professors, business leaders and activists, are among more than 500 people taken into custody in the region.
In some neighbourhoods, residents observed Pakistan’s Independence, officially marked a day earlier, by setting off firecrackers and hoisting its national flag.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has compared Modi’s government to Nazi Germany, on Thursday took to Twitter to voice his alarm.
“Will world silently witness another Srebrenica-type massacre & ethnic cleansing of Muslims in IOK? (Indian-occupied Kashmir),” Khan wrote, referring to the killing of Muslim men and boys in Yugoslavia in 1995.
Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947, has been the spark for two major wars and countless clashes between the two nuclear-armed arch-rivals.