India and Pakistan exchanged “heavy” cross-border fire on Saturday, after New Delhi’s move to strip the restive Kashmir region of its autonomy prompted a rare meeting of the UN Security Council.
The two foes regularly fire potshots over the Line of Control in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is divided between the two countries and poisoned their relations since independence in 1947.
But the latest exchange follows India’s decision this month to rip up the special constitutional status of its part of Kashmir, sparking protests from the local population, outrage from Pakistan and unease from neighbouring China.
“The exchange of fire is going on,” a senior Indian government official told AFP, calling it “heavy”.
One Indian soldier was reportedly killed. Pakistan made no immediate comment on the violence.
Late Friday, Pakistan and China succeeded in getting the UN Security Council to discuss Kashmir — behind closed doors — for the first time since the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday hailed the gathering, saying that addressing the “suffering of the Kashmiri people & ensuring resolution of the dispute is the responsibility of this world body”.
New Delhi insists the status of the territory is a purely internal matter.
“We don’t need international busybodies to try to tell us how to run our lives. We are a billion-plus people,” India’s UN envoy Syed Akbaruddin said after the meeting.
US President Donald Trump urged the nuclear-armed rivals to come back to the negotiating table, speaking to Khan by phone on the importance of “reducing tensions through bilateral dialogue”.
– Phone lines –
India on Saturday meanwhile gradually restored phone lines following an almost two-week communications blackout in its part of Kashmir, imposed hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise August 5 gambit.
Seventeen out of around 100 telephone exchanges were restored Saturday in the restive Kashmir Valley, the local police chief told AFP.
But mobiles and the internet remained dead in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the main hotbed of resistance to Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir state in a 30-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands.
Fearing an angry and potentially violent response, India also sent 10,000 extra troops to the area, severely restricted movement and arrested some 500 local politicians, activists, academics and others.
The state’s Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam had said Friday there would be a “gradual” restoration of phone lines over the weekend, with schools to resume classes in some areas next week.
– Clashes –
The transformation of Srinagar into an eerie maze of barricades, soldiers and concertinas of barbed wire has failed to stop public anger boiling to the surface.
“We want peace and nothing else, but they have kept us under this lockdown like sheep while taking decisions about us,” resident Tariq Madri told AFP.
“Even my nine-year old son asked me why they had locked us inside,” he added.
Several hundred protesters clashed with police in the city on Friday, who responded with tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns.
People hurled stones and used shop hoardings and tin sheets as improvised shields, as police shot dozens of rounds into the crowd. No injuries were reported.
The clashes broke out after more than 3,000 people rallied in the city’s Soura neighbourhood, which has witnessed regular demonstrations this month.
A week earlier around 8,000 people staged a protest which also ended in a violent confrontation with police, residents said.
“I want the government to know that this aggression and aggressive policies don’t work on the ground,” said 24-year-old Adnan Rashid, an engineering student.
Some people took to the streets on Saturday to buy essential goods but most shops in Srinagar remained closed.
Mohammed Altaf Malik, 30, said people remained angry about the stripping of Kashmir’s special status “and the way it was done”.
“There is widespread corruption and the police here have made it a business to pick up any people it wants and then ask for money to release them from detention,” Malik told AFP as he went to visit a sick neighbour in hospital.
“We don’t see anything changing from this for ordinary people like us,” he added.