India evacuates border villages after ‘strikes’ on Pakistan
CHAK ALLAH BAKSH // India evacuated thousands of people living near the border with Pakistan on Friday, a day after claiming to have crossed into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to carry out strikes on suspected terrorists.
Authorities in the northern Indian state of Punjab said they were evacuating villages within 10 kilometres of the border following Thursday’s alleged raids. One Indian official said villagers in parts of Kashmir near the border with Pakistan were also being advised to evacuate their homes in case of shelling, or remain indoors if they were unable to leave.
Indian sources said on Thursday that commandos had carried out “surgical strikes” several kilometres inside Pakistani Kashmir on what they called “terrorist” targets.
Islamabad said it was untrue that Indian troops had crossed into Pakistani Kashmir, however, but accused New Delhi of “naked aggression” for killing two Pakistani servicemen in what it described as cross-border fire.
The incident followed a deadly assault on an army base in India-controlled Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants, triggering a public outcry and demands for military action.
Indian and Pakistani troops regularly exchange fire across the disputed border known as the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir, but sending ground troops over the line is rare.
In Punjab, which neighbours the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, thousands of people were being moved away from the heavily secured border as fears of military escalation mounted.
Indian media said camps were being set up in schools and places of worship in the mainly Sikh state, where images showed people piling bedding and cooking equipment onto trailers and cramming into crowded buses as security forces stood guard.
Jaswant Kaur said people in his Punjab village of Chak Allah Baksh had been told to leave their homes.
“Of course it’s not a nice feeling to leave your home, crops, cattle and everything else behind,” the 55-year-old said.
“Living here means we are always on the edge. We are really distressed.”
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, facing international calls for restraint, told a cabinet meeting that Islamabad’s commitment to peace “must not be construed as weakness”.
“In case of any aggression or violation of LoC, Pakistan will take all necessary steps to protect its people and territorial integrity,” said a statement from the cabinet office.
The United Nations said it was watching the situation “with great concern” and urged India and Pakistan to exercise restraint. The United States also called on both countries to improve communications to reduce tensions.
“We’ve expressed repeatedly our concerns about the danger of terrorism, cross-border terrorism, as well, in the region,” said US state department spokesman.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain seven decades ago, two of them over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi raised hopes of a new era in relations with Islamabad when he paid a surprise Christmas Day visit to Mr Sharif in December.
But relations have unravelled in the nine months since, culminating in the Indian military’s strikes this week.
On Tuesday New Delhi said it was pulling out of a key regional summit due to take place in Islamabad in November, citing an increase in cross-border attacks.
Since then four other countries have pulled out of the November summit – most recently Sri Lanka – dealing a humiliating blow to the host country.
The move came days after Mr Modi warned Pakistan that India would push to make it a pariah state, accusing it of “exporting terrorism in all corners”.
Pakistan, meanwhile, said it had sent envoys to Beijing on Friday to apprise the Chinese government of what it called the “deteriorating situation” in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Islamabad has repeatedly accused India of committing human rights abuses in its only Muslim-majority state, which has been roiled by deadly clashes between police and protesters since the death of a popular militant leader in July.
India’s home minister Rajnath Singh confirmed media reports that an Indian soldier had been captured on the Pakistani side of the LoC, although it was not clear whether the incident was related to the Thursday’s alleged strikes.
“All attempts are being made to secure his release,” the Press Trust of India news agency quoted Mr Singh as saying. Pakistani officials did not comment.
* Agence France-Presse
Published: September 30, 2016 04:00 AM