Pause in India-Pakistan fighting brings respite for civilians

Pause in India-Pakistan fighting brings respite for civilians
Indian security posts seen along the border between India and Pakistan in Suchetgarh near Jammu.

SRINAGAR - The lull came a day after a heated exchange of rhetoric, with New Delhi warning Pakistan it would pay an "unaffordable price" if shelling and machinegun fire continued and Islamabad saying it was capable of responding "fittingly" to aggression.

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. "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.

India and Pakistan forces exchanged gun fire for about 20 minutes on Thursday evening, another police official said.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their independence in 1947, two of them over Kashmir. Their shared border is among the most heavily militarized in the world and travel between the two nations is severely restricted.

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.

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." Both countries have accused each other of starting the latest hostilities that have hit civilian areas. India says it will not talk to Pakistan or stop firing until its neighbour backs down first.

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.

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