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Pakistan, India trade fire in Kashmir; villagers flee homes
By ROSHAN MUGHAL and AIJAZ HUSSAIN, MUZAFARABAD, Pakistan, Feb 28 (AP) — India and Pakistan exchanged gunfire through the night into Thursday morning in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, a day after Islamabad said it shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, though jetfighters roared overhead through the mountainous region as villagers along the so-called Line of Control fled to safety.
Meanwhile, members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharitiya Janata Party called for more military action, suggesting the conflict still could worsen. Modi himself held a teleconference rally Thursday ahead of national elections, warning that “India’s enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had called for talks between the two nuclear-armed rivals in a televised address Wednesday, saying: “Considering the nature of the weapons that both of us have, can we afford any miscalculation?”
Indian passenger Abida Bano cries as she arrives at Lahore railway station to travel to India, in Lahore, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. The Pakistan government temporally suspended the operation of the Samjhuta Express that runs from Lahore to New Delhi, India, after escalation of tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
World powers have called on the nations to de-escalate the tensions gripping the contested region since a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing killed over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel.
India responded with an airstrike Tuesday inside Pakistan, the first such raid since the two nations’ 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.
The situation escalated with Wednesday’s aerial skirmish, which saw Pakistan say it shot down two Indian aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan-held part of Kashmir and the other in India-controlled Kashmir.
India acknowledged one of its MiG-21s, a Soviet-era fighter jet, was “lost” in skirmishes with Pakistan. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said late Wednesday it “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force,” and that it expects his immediate and safe return.
India also said it shot down a Pakistani warplane, something Islamabad denied.
Pakistan’s military later circulated a video of a man with a mustache who identified himself as the Indian pilot, sipping tea and responding to questions, mostly by saying, “You know I can’t answer that.” He appeared in good health as he was questioned about his hometown, his aircraft and his mission.
Kashmir has been claimed by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after their creation in 1947. The countries have fought three wars against each other, two directly dealing with the disputed region.
Both Indian and Pakistani officials reported small-arms fire and shelling along the Kashmir region into Thursday. Government buildings in Muzafarabad, the capital of the Pakistan-controlled section of Kashmir, were used to provide shelter to those who fled from border towns.
Indian army spokesman Lt. Col. Devender Anand described the intensity of the firing as “lesser” than previous nights.
Authorities in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir closed all schools and educational institutions in the region and are urged parents to keep their children at home amid mounting tension with neighboring India. Pakistan’s airspace remained closed for a second day Thursday, snarling air traffic.
World leaders weighing in on the tension included President Donald Trump, who began remarks at a news conference Thursday in Vietnam after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by focusing on India and Pakistan.
“I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end,” Trump said, without elaborating. “It’s been going on for a long time — decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately, so we’ve been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organization and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening.”
Modi, in his first remarks since the pilot’s capture, gave a rallying speech ahead of elections in the coming months.
“Our defense forces are serving gallantly at the border,” he told tens of thousands gathered across the country to listen to him in a videoconference from New Delhi. “The country is facing challenging times and it will fight, live, work and win unitedly.”
Meanwhile, India’s finance minister, Arun Jaitley, suggested at a news conference Wednesday that Indian special forces carry out secret missions to capture terrorist leaders in Pakistan, invoking the 2011 U.S. Navy Seal operation to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
“I remember when U.S. Navy Seals went to Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden, then why can’t India?” he asked. “This used to be only an imagination, a wish, a frustration and disappointment. But it’s possible today.”
Just weeks before general elections are due in India, the head of Modi’s party in India’s Karnataka state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, said India’s pre-dawn airstrikes in Pakistan on Tuesday would help the party at the polls.
The violence Wednesday marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.
This latest wave of tension between the two rivals first began after the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing on Indian paramilitary forces on the Indian side of Kashmir that killed more than 40 troops.
India long has accused Pakistan of cultivating such militant groups to attack it. Pakistan has said it was not involved in that attack and was ready to help New Delhi in the investigation.