SRINAGAR, India – Tens of thousands of villagers were fleeing their homes in Kashmir on Monday, as Indian and Pakistani troops bombarded each another with gunfire and mortar shells over the border separating Pakistan from India's portion of the disputed region. At least nine civilians were killed.
Indian officials said the flare-up left five villagers dead, including one child, and 35 injured on the Indian side of the border. The Pakistani army reported four civilians killed, including two children, and three injured.
Monday's violence -- one of the worst violations of a 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan -- followed several meetings between the commanders of the two countries' border forces aimed at calming tensions. Two of the three wars between the enemy nations have been fought over competing claims to Kashmir in its entirety, though the 2003 cease-fire has largely held despite small but regular skirmishes.
Each side accused the other of firing first before dawn Monday, saying its troops only retaliated. Both sides said the violence was happening at several points along the border, including the designated frontier dividing Pakistan from the Indian-held Kashmir region of Jammu, as well as the U.N.-monitored line of control that slices through the mountainous region and divides it into an Indian-controlled portion and a Pakistan-administered territory.
On the Indian side, officials were evacuating tens of thousands of people from the town of Arnia and nearby villages to underground bunkers and government shelters.
"There is panic. We're trying to give them a sense of security and temporary shelters," said Jammu's top administrator, Shantmanu, who goes by one name.
Many saw the chaos as part of what's become a predictable cycle of violence in a region riven by decades-old animosities. A similar outburst of cross-border violence in August led 15,000 villagers to flee.
Indian officials regularly accuse the Pakistani side of waging violence as a cover for separatist militants to infiltrate into the Indian side. Pakistan staunchly denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the militants and to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.
"They want to push more militants. We are keeping the utmost vigil," Indian army spokesman S.D. Goswami said.
While the line of control is guarded by the Indian and Pakistani armies, each country uses a separate paramilitary border force to guard the lower-altitude frontier, defined by coils of razor wire that snake across foothills marked by ancient villages, tangled bushes and fields of rice and corn.
Watchtowers stand every few hundred yards on either side, with some Indian and Pakistani border troops stationed so close together that they can see and hear each other.