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November 10, 2013

India-Pakistan border fights disrupt village life

DHAMALA, Pakistan — Clashes between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India are always unnerving, but for Tanveer Ahmed, the latest border flare-up is personal: It's harming his marriage prospects.

The 20-year-old Pakistani's village, Dhamala, is just a few hundred meters (yards) from the barbed wire and watchtowers. He says he has approached three families in other towns with marriage proposals and all demurred.

"They said 'We can't take this risk. You could be killed at any time,'" said Ahmed. "I think I will have to move away from this village."

The gunfire and mortar shelling along the border of disputed Kashmir that erupted in August and peaked again in late October is the worst in a decade, killing eight Indian army soldiers and a border guard, and five military personnel and six civilians on the Pakistan side.

The Indians say they are trying to deter Pakistani militants crossing into Kashmir, where India has been fighting a decades-long insurgency. Pakistan says its soldiers are under strict orders to fire only if fired upon and accuse the Indians of firing into civilian areas.

Kashmir is a perennial flashpoint. Two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought have been over this part-Himalayan region. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebels fighting for independence or a merger with Pakistan. Pakistan denies giving any backing beyond moral and diplomatic support.

The recently elected Pakistani government says it wants to improve ties with India, and analysts say Pakistan's military has little interest in rocking the boat right now. India says militants are trying to infiltrate into the territory, and as the war in Afghanistan winds down, some worry that the militants who fought there are starting to shift to Kashmir.

Pakistan says that from Oct. 17 through Oct. 25 Indian forces unleashed more than 8,500 mortar shells and more than 20,000 rounds of small-arms fire in one area which includes Ahmed's village and others.

Indian officials would not give figures but generally they say they are responding to incoming fire, and in "equal measure."

On each side of the line are villages where people grow wheat, rice and corn amid the firefights.

Indian forces are so close to Dhamala that villagers can see their watchtowers. During a visit by The Associated Press arranged by the Pakistani military to villages near the Pakistani city of Sialkot, Nazeer Ahmed told how Indian shelling woke him one night.

He grabbed his children and was running to safety when a friend shouted that his neighbor had been wounded. He found the neighbor with his stomach ripped open by shrapnel.

Families have been overnighting with relatives in villages farther from the border. Mothers keep their children indoors and men pray at home instead of in the mosque. Children are warned not to pick up stray objects in case they blow up.

Villagers say they are used to the small-arms fire but the use of mortars is much more disturbing. They point to recently patched-up ceilings and brick houses that they say were hit by Indian mortar fire. They accuse the Indians of targeting civilian areas, and deny they are working with the Pakistani army.

"If they think the villagers are working with the army, they are foolish," said Muhammed Jamil in Charwa, a village roughly 800 meters (yards) from the border.

On the Indian side, people reached by telephone from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-held Kashmir, give similar accounts of the hardships they are enduring.

In the village of Garkhal, Sushma Devi, 24, said she was warming milk for her two kids on Oct. 24 when she heard a blast.

"I thought our roof crumbled, she said. "Then I saw four of our family members, including my husband, in blood all around me, crying for help. I too started crying. Then border guards came after a while and took them to the hospital."

In Pindi Chakran, 200 meters (yards) from the border, 40-year-old Rajinder Singh said people are afraid to work their fields.

"Border guards have a post in our village. Pakistani troops target them, but we are the victims. Our homes are damaged, villagers are hit and our cattle suffer. This time, we had to spend nights in a temporary shelter for a week," he said.

Things have calmed down in recent days, but no one knows for how long.

"Throughout my life I have seen the uncertainty," said 60-year-old Asghar Ali from the Pakistani village of Charwa. "No one can say how long this lull will last."

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