October 10, 2014 / 5:44 AM / 3 years ago

Pause in India-Pakistan fighting brings respite for civilians

Indian security posts (R) are seen along the border between India and Pakistan in Suchetgarh near Jammu October 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

SRINAGAR (Reuters) - Fighting between India and Pakistan paused on Friday after days of heavy shelling and gun battles across their disputed Himalayan border, the worst skirmishes between the nuclear-armed rivals in more than a decade.

Despite escalating tensions, Pakistan said war with India was not an option and that both sides should work to try and defuse the conflict.

Since they split 67 years ago, the two 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.

Nine Pakistani and eight Indian civilians have been killed since both sides’ security forces started firing more than a week ago along a 200-km (125-mile) stretch of border in mostly Muslim Kashmir.

Relative calm returned to the region on Friday after a heated exchange of rhetoric, with New Delhi warning Pakistan it would pay an “unaffordable price” if shelling continued. Islamabad had said it was capable of responding “fittingly”.

“It was calm along the Jammu border during the night, there was no firing in any of the sectors,” said Uttam Chand, an Indian police officer, referring to the southern, predominantly Hindu part of the region. In a symbolic twist, this year’s Nobel peace prize on Friday was awarded jointly to an Indian and a Pakistani - children’s rights defender Kailash Satyarth and teenage activist Malala Yousafzai.

TOUGH RHETORIC

In Islamabad, the National Security Committee “stressed the fact that both countries are aware of each other’s capabilities. War is not an option,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said in a statement after he chaired a committee meeting.

“It is shared responsibility of the leadership of both countries to immediately defuse the situation,” it said.

“The committee expressed the resolve that any attempt to challenge Pakistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be responded with full force. The Armed Forces assured the National Security Committee that they are fully prepared to deal with any adversity at our borders.”

Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan invited the United Nations to investigate latest round of violence.

“In the next few days Pakistan will take a U.N. observer group to the border areas so they can ascertain who started this and who is responsible,” he told a news conference. India will respond to Pakistan appropriately and it is in Pakistan’s hands to de-escalate the border conflict, Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said on Friday.“Pakistan and its security forces need to end the present adventurism,” Akbaruddin said. “It is for Pakistan to either escalate or de-escalate.”

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.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has directed that people who have been displaced from the border villages of Jammu and Kashmir due to dastardly acts of shelling by Pakistan over the last few days, be suitably compensated”, the government said in a statement.

Civilians living in the area hit hardest by the shelling expressed relief at the halt in firing.“We hope calm prevails and the border shooting ends,” said Avtar Singh, 45, after taking refuge in a nearby school. “Our condition in this school is very bad. We want to go back to our homes.”

Officials have set up 26 camps to house the villagers, with about 14,500 people spending the night there.

“Most villagers are worried about their ripe crops of paddy and maize,” said government officer Thakur Sher Singh. “They cannot be allowed to harvest it now because we cannot endanger their lives and if the tension continues the standing crop could start rotting.”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.

Writing By Andrew MacAskill and Maria Golovnina in Islamabad; Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by John Chalmers and Jeremy Laurence

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