CHAKOTHI, PAKISTANI KASHMIR - The families of two men killed by Indian forces near the de facto Kashmir border are calling on India to turn over their remains to be buried according to Islamic ritual.
Noor Hussain, 57, and Abdul Aziz, 63, were killed May 26 during an alleged gunfight near Fellan, their ancestral village on the Pakistani side of the disputed territory.
Pakistani authorities flew a small group of reporters to the heavily-militarized so-called Line of Control, or LoC, that separates the Pakistani and Indian parts of the scenic Himalayan region, to showcase the plight of civilians in the area.
Hussain’s widow, Sarwar Jan, his two sons and a daughter, told VOA the incident has devastated their economically-burdened family.
“My husband had gone in the afternoon to collect wood for fuel in the kitchen because Ramadan was about to begin,” she said.
She said her family and that of Aziz waited throughout the night before approaching Pakistani authorities the next day in the wake of reports and pictures in Indian media about the death of their loved ones.
“Heavy firing prevented us from going to the site on our own in search of my husband. I now beg them to please return the bodies so we could at least see their faces before burial,” she said.
Pakistani military commanders say they communicated details of the deceased men with Indian counterparts in an attempt to secure the bodies as per a well-established mutual practice of swiftly returning inadvertent crossers or their remains. Islamabad said New Delhi has not responded to the request.
Indian military officials say the men were intruders and belonged to the Pakistan army’s alleged Border Action Team (BAT) — well-trained militants who carry out deadly cross-border attacks on Indian troops in Kashmir.
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Son claims India crossed border
Tariq Mehmood, a son of Aziz, said he found out through social media that his father and Hussain had been killed. He suggested Indian troops infiltrated the LoC to conduct the operation, assertions Pakistani officials denied.
“The area where they gunned them down while they were collecting wood was well known to my father because it has always been part of our family land. So, there was no question of them inadvertently crossing over to the Indian side. They came, killed them and took them away,” Mehmood said.
Pakistani officials maintain the LoC is an “imaginary” line in the mountainous region and only military experts on both sides are aware of it. It is not possible for ordinary Kashmiris living in divided villages to determine the demarcation.
Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Hajira, villagers took to the streets to protest heavy shelling by Indian troops that left at least two civilians dead and several wounded, according to officials. Pakistani troops responded to what they said was an “unprovoked” cease-fire violation.
Both sides routinely blame each other for firing the first shots.
Protesters also alleged that Indian forces killed 80-year-old retired school principal Kazim Shah and are refusing to return his body. New Delhi has not commented.
Clashes across the disputed Kashmir frontier have become routine in recent months, almost tearing apart a 2003 mutual cease-fire deal, which had led to an improved social and economic environment for divided families.
The landmark truce led to the opening of trade and travel routes to help mitigate the suffering of poverty-stricken Kashmiris on both sides.
Heightened military tensions, however, have undermined those lines of communication, leading to an intermittent suspension of trade and travel facilities.
The situation has international stakeholders concerned about the possibility of another war between the two nuclear-armed nations.
The United Nations Thursday said it is watching developments.
“I think the situation that we've seen in that area continues to be of concern to us and, as I've said before, the secretary-general is following the situation very closely,” said Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for U.N. chief António Guterres.
In recent public talks, former and current U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility of another war between India and Pakistan unless bilateral diplomatic contacts are restored to defuse current military tensions.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, the director-general of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, expressed fears of a further strain in ties between the two South Asian nations.
Islamabad says the deteriorating security conditions and an intensified local uprising in Indian Kashmir over the past eight months have prompted New Delhi to escalate operations on the Kashmir cease-fire line, allegedly to divert international attention from rights abuses against locals by Indian troops.
India claims Pakistan is fueling the unrest in Kashmir. Islamabad denies the allegation.
India and Pakistan have already fought three wars since they gained independence from Britain in 1947. Kashmir was the issue in two of the conflicts and the dispute remains the primary source of regional tension. Both countries claim the region in its entirety.