India, Pakistan Step Up Border Fighting Ahead of Kerry Visit

By Fayaz Bukhari & Katharine Houreld 6 January 2015

SRINAGAR, India — Indian and Pakistani troops intensified cross-border firing on Monday, killing an Indian border guard and forcing hundreds of villagers to flee, escalating tensions before visits by top U.S. officials.

India said four Pakistanis planning an attack on Indian soil were killed, although Indian media and opposition parties disputed the official account. The Pakistani army confirmed two civilian deaths from Indian shelling.

Monday’s incident, in the Samba district south of Jammu along the international border in Jammu and Kashmir, followed the killing of four Pakistani soldiers by their Indian counterparts on New Year’s Eve.

A senior Indian official with the border security force said they had retaliated against machine gun and mortar attacks on about 60 positions along a more than 200-km (125-mile) stretch of the border on Monday.

“Pakistani rangers fired rocket propelled grenades in villages near the border and our men have responded,” the officer told Reuters.

Amid the growing hostility, India’s security agencies last week declared a nationwide alert to avoid militant strikes in the lead-up to visits by top U.S. diplomat John Kerry and President Barack Obama later in January.

Kerry is due to speak at the weekend before an investment summit in Gujarat, at the furthest end of the Pakistani border from Kashmir, the organizers said. Obama will attend India’s Republic Day military parade on Jan 26.

Indian media say Kerry will also visit Pakistan, but officials in Islamabad have not confirmed that.

Tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors have ratcheted up since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called off peace talks in August, with sporadic rounds of heavy shelling pounding civilian villages along a previously peaceful stretch of border.

The South Asian rivals, who have fought two wars over Muslim-majority Kashmir, have traded blame for an upsurge in firing and shelling that started in October last year.

Last week, the clashes stretched beyond the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir and touched international waters when Indian Coast Guards said a Pakistani fishing boat laden with explosives blew up in the Arabian Sea.

Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif on Sunday accused India of pursuing a low-intensity war by starting unprovoked firing on the international borders.

At least 4,000 Indian villagers have fled their homes since New Year’s Eve, officials said, and similar numbers are believed to have fled border areas on the Pakistan side. India closed schools near the border and postponed exams on Monday.