A woman was killed and nine other people, including two police constables, were injured in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) on Monday as Indian troops resorted to “ruthless” mortar shelling from across the restive Line of Control (LoC), officials said.
The target on the last day of 2018 was Athmuqam, the otherwise rarely hit district headquarters of the picturesque Neelum Valley, located some 80 kilometres northeast of state capital Muzaffarabad.
“First they [Indians] fired some shells on Pakistan Army posts, but suddenly they started pounding civilian installations with mortar shells,” said Akhtar Ayub, an Athmuqam based disaster risk management officer.
Video footages shared by some Athmuqam residents in WhatsApp groups showed people running to safety amid the thunder of shelling and clouds of smoke.
Ayub said Indian troops targeted the entire one-kilometre radius of Athmuqam, overlooked by Indian gun positions atop lofty mountains across the unmarked dividing line.
“The shelling was so indiscriminate that we thought they [Indians] will devastate everything existing on the ground,” said Abbas Mir, a schoolteacher, whose car’s windowpane was smashed by the splinters of a shell.
Samiya Amir, an AJK University Neelum campus student, said they were on the third floor of a building when the shelling began.
“All of us rushed to the ground floor where we remained confined over the next three hours in a state of fear and anxiety,” she added.
Same was the situation in all other educational institutions in the town, where students were trapped during the course of shelling, Ayub said.
He said many people took shelter in the building of a local hospital in the absence of reinforced underground shelters along with the houses.
The shelling stopped after an hour but left a 27-year-old woman dead and nine others wounded, Ayub said.
The deceased, identified as Asiya Bibi, was hit in the head by a shrapnel from a mortar shell outside her house, he said. The mother of a toddler died on the spot.
The injured were identified as Sadaf Zia, 16, Misbah Jameel, 8, Kulsoom Shafqat, 18, Zarmeen Bibi, 20, Ansar Bibi, 35, and her son Khawaja Amir, 20, Rafaqat Khan, 35, and police constables Raja Zulqarnain, 36, and Malik Sajjad, 33.
All of them were treated locally and were out of danger, Ayub said.
The 200km-long Neelum Valley had long faced the brunt of heavy cross-border shelling between the rival troops until a truce agreement in November 2003 brought much-needed relief to its inhabitants.
Over the past 15 years, while the truce agreement saw numerous violations elsewhere causing several civilian casualties, the Neelum Valley remained an exception as Indian troops never directly hit its civilian population even during the days of heightened tensions.
However, this privilege came to an end in late 2016, when initially a famous tourist resthouse located a few kilometres ahead of Athmuqam was shelled by Indian troops on October 29 followed by shelling on a passenger coach on November 23 that had left more than 10 people dead and several others wounded.
In yet another incident of ceasefire violation in Neelum, a Pakistan Army vehicle was hit by Indian troops on July 16, 2017, leaving four soldiers martyred.
However, the LoC in Neelum Valley had since been calm and quiet, paving the way for an influx of thousands of tourists from across the country to enjoy its natural beauty.
The last ceasefire violation in the valley was reported on October 30 this year, when Indian troops had fired a few mortar shells.
An official said all tourists in the valley were safe because most of them were away from Athmuqam.
“The traffic between Athmuqam and Muzaffarabad is plying normally,” he said.
According to Saeed Qureshi, a senior officer at State Disaster Management Authority, Monday’s Indian shelling pushed the death toll in AJK in the outgoing year to 28, including 19 men and 9 women, and the number of injured to 172, including 92 men and 80 women.
The shelling also left 29 houses damaged partially and completely destroyed three houses and a shop. At least 13 cattle head also perished in the violence, he said.