Five civilians and a Pakistan Army soldier were martyred on Friday in "unprovoked and indiscriminate" firing by Indian troops from across the restive Line of Control (LoC) in several areas of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), civil and military officials said.
At least 30 other civilians and five soldiers also sustained injuries in the ceasefire violations in what appeared to be the biggest escalation in hostilities on the de facto border in months.
India also suffered "substantial losses" in terms of troops and material in Pakistan Army's "befitting reply" to the firing, according to an Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement.
A report by The Hindu newspaper said 10 people, including six civilians, three army soldiers and one Border Security Force (BSF) soldier, were killed and more than 20 others injured in firing by Pakistani troops in four districts of Indian-occupied Kashmir.
The chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Kashmir, Shehryar Khan Afridi, shared a video of the aftermath of the Indian firing. "Indian coward army is targeting civilian population across the LoC! Targeting civilians is a WAR CRIME!!!" he tweeted.
Giving background of the latest flare-up, the ISPR said on the night of November 7-8, the Indian army reportedly had an 'encounter' with a few freedom fighters in Kupwara district, "well within" occupied Jammu and Kashmir's territory, opposite Neelum Valley in AJK. During the clash, Indian troops suffered some casualties including four soldiers.
"To ward off the humiliation faced by Indian Army in front of domestic audience, instead of finding the reasons from within and addressing the same, on November 13, 2020, Indian Army opted for resorting to unprovoked and indiscriminate fire of all calibres, including artillery and heavy mortars, along [the] LoC in various sectors of AJK," the statement added.
The areas targeted by Indian troops included Neelum Valley (Nekrun, Kel, Sharda, Dudhnial, Shahkot, Jura, Nauseri sectors), Leepa Valley (Danna, Mandal and Kayani sectors), Jhelum Valley (Chham and Pandu sectors), and Bagh Valley (Pirkanthi, Sankh, Haji Pir, Bedori and Kailer sectors).
Besides engaging with Pakistan Army posts and positions, Indian troops also targeted the civilian population along the LoC "in utter disregard to all international obligations and human rights", leaving four people dead and 12 others injured. Local officials later provided increased figures.
"In response to this provocative act, Pakistan Army gave a befitting reply to the Indian Army, and effectively targeted those Indian posts which engaged innocent civilians," the press release added.
It said "substantial losses, both in terms of men and material, have been incurred on to Indian troops" that had also been accepted by Indian media. India's confirmed losses are "much more than being acknowledged", it added.
During the exchange of fire, a Pakistan Army soldier was martyred, while five others were injured.
"Such cowardly acts of targeting innocent civilians reflect sheer lack of morality, utter un-professionalism and total disregard [of] human rights by the Indian Army and are also [a] clear violation of [the] ceasefire understanding of 2003," the military's media wing stated.
It reiterated that "Pakistan is a peace-loving country and [the] Pakistan Army pursue the same aspirations."
"However, we stand committed to defend the motherland and our Kashmiri brethren even at the cost of our blood and lives," it said, adding that "all such provocative acts shall continue to be responded in the same coin."
'Heaviest ever shelling'
Friday's casualties, 90 per cent of which occurred in Neelum Valley and the rest in Nauseri sector in Muzaffarabad district and Reshian area of Leepa Valley, were reminiscent of the losses in the last week of July 2019 in the same areas when the Indian army had used banned cluster ammunition.
According to Syed Shahid Mohyiddin Qadri, AJK’s secretary civil defence and disaster management, Indian troops simultaneously started shelling in Neelum and Leepa valleys and then expanded its range to Nauseri sector of Muzaffarabad, beyond which the picturesque Neelum Valley begins.
“It was the heaviest ever shelling in the Neelum Valley, resembling last year’s carpet bombing of the valley’s civilian populated areas,” he told Dawn.
Raja Mahmood Shahid, deputy commissioner of Neelum, said the shelling left four civilians dead in the upper and lower belts of his district. He identified the deceased as Fayyaz Ahmed, 38, in Dudhniyal; Shoaib, 22, in Falakan; Pervez, 40, in Lala; and Sajida, 16, in Karimabad.
Two-year-old Adeeb Sudhir from Lala also died due to the shelling, a senior official at Combined Military Hospital (CMH) Muzaffarabad said.
At least 25 other civilians, including women and children, were injured in Neelum Valley, some of them critically, according to DC Shahid.
He said at least 15 houses, some multi-storeyed, and a shop were burnt to ashes while 24 houses and a private guesthouse were partially damaged in different parts of the valley. Some 20 cattle heads and eight goats also perished in the shelling, according to initial reports.
Video clips posted on social media by villagers as well as some tourists showed huge flames engulfing wooden houses, amid screams of their residents watching the scene helplessly from some distance.
In Nauseri sector of Muzaffarabad district, three other civilians were injured in Kanoor village and a man was injured in Panjkot village, according to Muzaffarabad Deputy Commissioner Abdul Hameed Kiani.
Qadri said Leepa Valley and Chamm and Pandu sectors of Jhelum Valley district also faced heavy Indian shelling but no casualties were reported there.
However, he said, one civilian was injured in Reshian, which is the last village of tehsil Hattian Bala en route Leepa Valley.
According to Qadri, shelling had stopped by the evening "but an air of uncertainty prevails in the affected areas".
'Height of cruelty'
In a tweet, AJK President Masood Khan strongly condemned the civilian casualties caused by the Indian firing. "Targeting unarmed civilian, especially women and children is the height of cruelty and reflects the criminal behaviour of the Indian army," he wrote.
AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider also strongly condemned the Indian firing at civilian population and called upon Islamabad to immediately raise this issue at the United Nations, OIC and other international forums to apprise the international community of aggression by the Indian army.
“Let it be clear to the Indian government that such cowardly acts will not lessen the resolve and determination of the Kashmiri people and they will continue their struggle to bring about an end to illegal Indian occupation of their motherland,” he said in a statement released by the press information department.
On Twitter, he posed a direct question to Prime Minister Imran Khan. “Martyrdom of 5 innocent AJK civilians & injuries to another 31 by Indian Army in just 2 days, in addition to huge property loss, compels me to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan that who's responsible for the safety of my people along the CFL and for how long we have to bear such colossal losses?” he tweeted.
Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar said while the whole world was trying to combat Covid-19, "India's PM Modi is disrupting peace of the region and attacking civilian settlements on LoC".
"We stand with brave Kashmiris and expect the world to take notice of India's state terrorism in IIOJK and LoC."
On Friday morning, the ISPR had reported that one person was killed and three others sustained injuries in firing by Indian troops along the LoC.
In a tweet, it said Indian army troops targeted the civilian population living in Rakhchikri and Khanjar sectors along the LoC using rockets and mortars.
The ceasefire violation targeting Tari Band and Samahni villages led to the death of one citizen and left three civilians, including two women, injured.
"PakArmy responded effectively, targeting Indian Army posts," the ISPR said.
Meanwhile, Senate Deputy Chairman Saleem Mandviwala, who was supposed to visit the LoC on Friday, said he was forced to cancel his visit due to relentless Indian shelling.
In a statement, Mandviwala, who is currently visiting AJK, said he was also scheduled to meet the prime minister and president of AJK but the meeting was postponed due to the firing.
He said Indian troops were carrying out "intense shelling" and had also targeted civilian homes and a mosque.
"This is not even shelling; India is throwing bombs," he said, adding that the residents of Neelum Valley were becoming victims of "Indian army's terrorism".
Regretting the deaths of civilians, he urged the international community to take notice of Indian "aggression" and "state-sponsored terrorism".
The heavily militarised LoC that splits the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir has been witnessing skirmishes and artillery duels in a serious breach of a truce agreement that the rival armies had signed in November 2003.
Only on Thursday, one civilian was killed and five others wounded in Haveli and Bhimber districts.
Friday’s shelling pushed the civilian death toll in the current year to 28, while another 233 civilians sustained injuries, according to Qadri, AJK’s disaster management secretary.
Last month, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Munir Akram had told the United Nations that India's aggressive policies and military posture posed an "immediate and pervasive threat" to international peace and security.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) First Committee on disarmament and international security, Akram said Indian forces continued to resort to artillery and small arms fire every day along the LoC, targeting innocent civilians on Pakistan's side.
"There were over 3,000 ceasefire violations in 2019 and over 2,400 this year so far.
"Such daily military provocations are accompanied by repeated threats of aggression by India's political and military leaders. Pakistan has acted with restraint to these provocations and threats, but as we demonstrated in February 2019, Pakistan will respond decisively to any Indian aggression with the full force of our capabilities," the envoy added.
With additional input by Nadir Guramani.