Fresh skirmishes between India and Pakistan along their disputed Kashmir border have killed four civilians and wounded several others on both sides. Bilateral tensions appear to have escalated after New Delhi earlier this week called off long-awaited diplomatic talks with Islamabad.
Indian and Pakistani authorities are blaming each other for starting the border clashes in violation of a mutual cease-fire in the divided Kashmir region.
The two sides have largely followed the accord that went into effect in November 2003, but sporadic violations have become routine over the past couple of years.
Senior Indian security officials say their forces retaliated after Pakistani troops fired guns and mortar rounds Saturday morning on a dozen Indian border posts and nearby villages.
The hostilities, Indian officials claim, have killed and wounded several civilians. Indian authorities say over 3,000 villagers have also been evacuated to safe areas.
Army officials in Pakistan are reporting deaths of at least two villagers and injures to many others, including women on their side of the disputed Kashmir border. They allege the casualties occurred when Indian forces “resorted to unprovoked firing” in the Sialkot region.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif emphasizes the need for both sides to ease border tensions. He says that instead of “heating up the environment” efforts must be made to “bring down the temperatures” through urgent resumption of diplomatic contacts.
“We will definitely protect our borders [and] protect our territory. And these violations are not good for the region and for the relationship between the two countries," he said. "We think that peace should be pursued in this region and these skirmishes on the border and these violations on the border they should stop.”
The minister says the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in recent months has demonstrated “goodwill” to establish “cordial and friendly” ties with the new Indian government.
Despite the border tensions, Asif sounded confident a meeting between foreign secretaries of the two countries that India cancelled earlier this week “will take place very soon”.
New Delhi called off the meeting that was scheduled for August 25 to show its outrage at a meeting the top Pakistani diplomat in India held with separatist leaders from the Indian portion of Kashmir.
But India has tolerated such meetings in the past and Pakistan criticized the move as a “setback” to efforts aimed at establishing regional peace.
Earlier this month, Pakistan summoned a senior Indian diplomat to the foreign ministry to lodge Islamabad's protest over "unprovoked Indian firing" in the same area where Saturday's clashes took place.
Pakistani officials claim Indian troops have committed more that 50 cease-fire violations within the past two months.