MUZAFFARABAD: Four Pakistan Army soldiers were martyred in Azad Kashmir’s Neelum valley on Sunday when their vehicle was struck by Indian shelling from across the Line of Control (LoC).

Pakistan condemned the breach of the LoC ceasefire.

“Indian troops targeted an Army vehicle moving along LoC along the Neelum River at Athmuqam. The vehicle fell into the river and four soldiers have drowned,” said the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) in a statement.

“Body of one Shaheed recovered (and) search for (the) remaining three in progress,” it added.

The ISPR said that the ceasefire violation had been responded to.

The icy Neelum River, which flows along the zigzagging Neelum valley road, serves as the dividing line between AJK and held Kashmir in most of the areas of the 200km long valley.

Indian troops sitting atop lofty mountains across the river are in a position to cripple normal life in the valley.

Local official sources told Dawn that the army vehicle was carrying six soldiers, including the driver. It was on its way to the upper belt of the valley that starts beyond Athmuqam, the district headquarters located some 80km northeast of Muzaffarabad.

“When the vehicle reached near a spot known as Lala Seri in Sathriyan village, it was hit by a mortar shell fired from across the LoC at about 4:30pm,” one source said. Sathriyan lies three kilometers from Athmuqam.

“(After being hit) the vehicle veered off course and fell into the river,” the source added.

“Two soldiers were tossed onto the river bank, but the other four drowned. The body of only one has been recovered so far,” he said.

A civilian employee of the district administration, who was coming from the opposite direction on his bike, was also trapped in the fire and critically wounded, Neelum deputy commissioner Chaudhry Fareed told Dawn.

“However, he is out of danger,” he added.

The deputy commissioner said even though the LoC was calm after the incident, tourists had been given some advice in the interest of their safety. Over 20,000 tourists are present in the valley and all were safe.

“We have however asked them not to get panicked and drive with care,” the deputy commissioner said, adding that police had been deployed along the main artery to help the tourists.

“Since the Indians are not trustworthy people, we have advised the tourists to follow the instructions from the law enforcers in their own interest,” he said.

The entry of tourists had been stopped at the valley’s entry point in Nauseri for the time being.

“We don’t want to take any chances,” he said.

The rare attack on the military vehicle was reminiscent of an incident in the area in November, when a civilian bus was hit by Indian troops from across the LoC, leaving nine passengers dead and another 11 wounded. Three of the wounded died afterwards in hospitals in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad.

Over the past 14 years, while the truce agreement saw violations a number of times in other parts of AJK, the Neelum valley however remained an exception.

The Indians never directly hit civilians even during the days of heightened tensions.

However, the restraint came to end when initially a tourist rest house in Karen was shelled by Indian troops on Oct 29 last year, followed by shelling on the passenger coach on Nov 23.

Interestingly, the LoC in Neelum valley once again became extremely quiet after those two incidents, paving the way for arrival of thousands of tourists from across the country to enjoy its natural beauty.

Meanwhile, the unprovoked firing by Indian forces was strongly condemned by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to a tweet by Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria.

“He (PM) expressed deep grief and condolences with the bereaved families; praised the prompt response by Pakistan Army,” Mr Zakaria tweeted.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017