A teenager was killed and three other civilians injured in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) as “ruthless shelling” by Indian troops from across the restive Line of Control (LoC) continued on Friday, officials said.
The casualties occurred in Kotli district where the LoC was calm since the morning but became “hot” in the afternoon after Indian troops resorted to heavy mortar and artillery shelling, they added.
The shelling comes as Pakistan and India reel from a week of high escalation which had raised fears of an all-out war after the Pakistan Air Force shot down two Indian aircraft for violating Pakistani airspace.
Analysts expected the situation to de-escalate Friday evening as Prime Minister Imran Khan released a captured Indian pilot, in an overture towards New Delhi.
“The shelling was so intense that two to three mortar shells also fell in the main market of tehsil headquarters Nakyal,” said Dr Umer Azam, the deputy commissioner of Kotli.
According to residents, the last time Nakyal bazaar was hit by Indian shelling was in 2002, a year before the truce agreement between the rival troops.
Azam said splinters of a shell pierced a 19-year-old man, Muhammad Sudhir, who was standing at Parawa Chowk in the bazaar, and killed him on the spot.
Elsewhere in the district, Asjad Akbar, 22, Noreen Akhtar, 30, and Hafza, 14, were injured in Tatta Pani and Goi sectors, he added.
Imran Shaheen, the deputy commissioner of Jhelum Valley district, told Dawn that there had been heavy shelling in Pandu sector after [Thursday-Friday] midnight, causing severe damage to at least eight houses and a shop.
Fortunately, inhabitants of these houses had already been evacuated or else there might have been casualties, he said.
Ghulam Raza Kazmi, a resident of Pahal village in Pandu sector said shelling had started again in his area on Friday evening.
“People are scared, particularly those who do not have protection bunkers in or along their houses,” he said.
Pandu sector runs parallel to Chakothi sector, which is home to one of the three crossing points for trans-LoC travel and trade.
Exchange of mortar shelling was also reported from Samahni sector of Bhimber district, where the Pakistan Air Force had shot down two Indian jets on Wednesday.
“The shelling is intermittent … It has so far caused damage to one house but there are no casualties,” said Bhimber Deputy Commissioner Sardar Khalid Mahmood.
On Thursday, a school building and eleven houses were partially damaged in Bhimber district, apart from damage caused to two vehicles.
According to Shaheen, some 142 families had already fled their homes in the forward locations of Jhelum Valley district and of them, 52 families, comprising 307 people, had been rehabilitated in a government building.
They were being provided cooked food and other necessities by the administration from its own resources, he said.
He said 25 more families had informed them that they too would leave their homes in the vulnerable areas. "We have made arrangements for their habitation in the same building," he added.
Saeed Qureshi, a senior officer at the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), said 255 families in Kotli and 18 families in Bhimber had also moved backwards.
However, residents said the actual number of displaced families was much higher as many of them had not got themselves registered with the authorities.
The SDMA official said Friday’s casualties had pushed the number of the deceased and injured AJK civilians since the start of 2019 to 7 and 39, respectively.
The number of partially or completely damaged houses and other buildings was more than 50, he added.
Cash grant for LoC families
In a related development, the AJK government has asked the federal government to sanction a special relief package under the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) for the population along the LoC in view of their plight in the face of ceasefire violations by Indian troops.
“Everyday shelling has [a] direct bearing on the livelihood of the LoC residents, as it is damaging their houses, shops, fruit trees and crops … Though the AJK government is taking steps for their welfare, its meagre resources are a big impediment to provision of these services to the entire affected population,” an official handout quoted AJK Chief Secretary Mathar Niaz Rana as saying in a letter to the federal Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan.
According to the handout, the chief secretary had pointed out that of the 4.2 million total AJK population, around 503,000 people from 79,992 families were residing along the LoC and were directly exposed to Indian shelling.
At the moment, 13,982 of these families are enrolled as BISP beneficiaries but since all LoC residents deserve special treatment, it would be a welcome gesture by the federal government to add the remaining 66,010 families on the list of the beneficiaries of BISP’s cash grant scheme, the chief secretary wrote.