Kashmiris flee, prepare bunkers, as India-Pakistan tensions rise
Thousands of Kashmiris have fled their homes, some bailed water out of disused bunkers, while others dug in - determined to see out the latest flare up of hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Shelling across the heavily militarised Line of Control which divides Kashmir between the two South Asian countries sent many seeking shelter 27 February, even before nuclear-armed India and Pakistan both claimed they had shot each other's warplanes down, igniting fears of an all-out conflict.
Pakistani officials said four people were killed the day earlier by shelling from the Indian side of the ceasefire line.
The death toll mounts on both sides each time sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan turns into conflict. This time, Kashmiris have watched warplanes fighting overhead and cowered under the shelling.
Calling for talks with India to defuse the situation, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences should "better sense" not prevail.
"Can we afford any miscalculation with the kind of weapons that we have and you have?" he said in a televised statement.
While both sides have sought to play down the threat of war, the rare aerial engagement over the divided and disputed territory of Kashmir significantly raises the stakes in a standoff sparked by a suicide attack on the Indian-controlled side earlier this month.
The incidents are the latest in a dangerous sequence of events between the two countries, whose ties have been under intense strain since the February 14 suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 troops.
New Delhi had promised to act, and on 26 February its warplanes flew into Pakistani airspace and struck what it said was a camp of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the militant group that claimed the Kashmir bombing.
It was India's first air strike on Pakistani soil since the neighbours fought a war in 1971 -- when neither had nuclear weapons.
At least 2,000 people left their homes near the unofficial border in the Kotli and Jhelum Valley districts on the Pakistani side, and authorities closed all public schools, said officials. Other districts also saw an exodus.
"More people are leaving their homes and moving to safer places," said Umar Azam, a senior government official in Kotli. Internet was also cut in some zones near the frontier -- often a sign of military activity.
Women, men and children, loaded with cases and bags, could be seen on roads. Some pulled cattle or carried other animals.
Habib Ullah Awan, a 46-year-old grocery store owner in the nearby border village of Chakothi said shells were still falling when he left his home with eight members of his family early 27 February.
"My house was not safe because of the shelling, God forbid, nothing will be left if a shell hits my house," he told AFP.
Most people leaving Chakothi went to Muzaffarabad, the main city in Pakistani Kashmir, or to stay with relatives in other villages. Those with no family to house them went to the Hattian Bala camp set up by the local administration.
Mushtaq Ahmed said he was taking his wife and children to Muzaffarabad. "But I will come back, I can't
afford to leave my home and belongings unguarded," he told AFP. At Kamalkote, on the Indian side, residents said they had also faced heavy shelling.
"We spent the night in total horror. Shells did not land in the village, but fighter jets are still flying above us," said a man who gave his name as Tariq. There was also heavy shelling at Poonch further south on the Line of Control. While no casualties were reported there, authorities have told villagers to prepare bunkers.
Some, fearing hostilities, took buckets underground to bail out complexes near the main city of Jammu that had been left flooded by melted winter snow.
Some residents have also left villages. "It happens regularly," said one at Poonch who declined to be named. "My relatives know my family will be arriving."
Baseer Khan, a senior government official in Indian-administered Kashmir, said authorities are always prepared to evacuate border residents but no order to do so has yet been given.
Kashmiris in a rally in Muzaffrabad on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control. Photo: EPA