KARGIL, India – Indian and Pakistani border troops exchanged intense artillery fire Sunday in the divided Kashmir region, as Pakistan's president said relations between the two countries were at their "lowest ebb" in years.
In a speech at Harvard University, President Pervez Musharraf said that India's and Pakistan's "forces confront each other eyeball to eyeball with most dangerous possibilities of the eruption of conflict by accident."
The two nuclear-armed nations have massed hundreds of thousands of troops at the border since India blamed Pakistan-based Islamic militants for a deadly attack on India's Parliament late last year that threatened to push the neighbors into war.
India's army alleged that Pakistan started the Sunday shelling and said that it was an attempt to sabotage state elections in India's Jammu-Kashmir state, the epicenter of five decades of hostilities between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Pakistan said there was no escalation, saying the exchange was no greater than frequent low-level artillery fire in recent weeks. It denied it was interfering in the elections, set to take place in September and October.
Hundreds of people huddled in their homes or watched in fear from rooftops Sunday as up to 200 shells landed at frequent intervals around the small mountaintop town of Kargil, located close to the Line of Control — the disputed frontier between India and Pakistan in Kashmir.
Some residents said it was some of the closest shelling to Kargil town since 1999, when India and Pakistan fought an undeclared war in the area.
Musharraf, who is in the United States for the start of the annual debate at the U.N. General Assembly, accused India of "intransigence" in his speech in Cambridge, Mass.
"Indo-Pakistan relations today are at their lowest ebb," he said, without elaborating.
A 17-year-old road laborer, Ratan Chand, died Sunday outside Kargil in the shelling, the first shelling death since 1999, said police superintendent T. Namgyal.
In nearby Dras district, a soldier died after he was hit by artillery fire, said Shabir Kambay, a doctor in the government hospital.
Pakistani shells hit an army garrison building and at least 10 houses were damaged in the border area of Pandras, an official in the area said on condition of anonymity.
Some villages near Dras were on fire after being hit, Kargil administrator Ashok Parmar said by telephone.
"It's like a war situation. An undeclared war where the shelling goes on all day," said Mohammed Abdullah, a teacher in Dras.
"This shelling is aimed at disrupting the election process," said Namgyal. "The main targets are roads and bridges, to prevent election officials from coming here."
Across the border in Islamabad, Pakistan army spokesman Saulat Reza called Sunday's exchange of artillery "routine," and said low-level firing had been going on for several weeks. He had no information on casualties.
The polls are seen as crucial to ending 12 years of insurgency in Kashmir. India says Pakistan is trying to sabotage the elections by sending in Islamic guerrillas to wage terror attacks in Indian territory. Pakistan calls the elections a sham and says it has nothing to do with the violence in Jammu-Kashmir, which has killed more than 60,000 people since 1989.
Away from the border, three members of the state's ruling National Conference party were gunned down by suspected Islamic rebels in two separate attacks in Jammu-Kashmir overnight, police said.
The shelling is the latest conflagration in five decades of hostility between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors, which have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.