India-Pakistan violence over Kashmir holding back region: Boris Johnson

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an end to violence in Kashmir during a visit to Islamabad on Thursday (Nov 24).
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an end to violence in Kashmir during a visit to Islamabad on Thursday (Nov 24).PHOTO: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an end to violence in Kashmir during a visit to Islamabad on Thursday (Nov 24), warning that tensions between India and Pakistan are holding the region back from becoming an "incredible boom zone".

Mr Johnson, who said he was visiting Pakistan for the first time, spoke a day after at least nine people were killed in Pakistani-held Kashmir when a civilian bus was hit by cross-border fire.

The deadly incident, which came after months of dangerous tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals, saw Pakistani and Indian military officials speak via a special hotline, according to the Pakistani military, which said it reserves "the right to respond".

Mr Johnson warned that former colonial power Britain could not act as a mediator in the nearly 70-year-old dispute over the Himalayan region, saying it must be up to India and Pakistan to find a "lasting solution".

He voiced concern over incidents "on both sides" of the de facto Kashmir border, the Line of Control (LoC).

"We call for an end to the violence and for both sides to exercise restraint," he said.

Mr Johnson also lamented the "mutual sequestration" of the Indian and Pakistani economies.

"Look at the incredible human potential of Pakistan and its neighbours... and then imagine what the future could be like if this was sorted out. What an incredible boom zone it could be."

Tensions in Kashmir reached dangerous levels in September, after India blamed Pakistani militants for a raid on an army base that killed 19 soldiers.

India said it had responded by carrying out "surgical strikes" across the heavily militarised border, sparking fury from Islamabad, which denied they took place.

There have since been repeated outbreaks of cross-border firing, with both sides reporting deaths, including of civilians.

After Wednesday's (Nov 23) shooting, Pakistani authorities closed the road leading to the scenic Neelum Valley, a popular tourist destination near the LoC, for security reasons.

Residents told Agence France-Presse they had fled the valley fearing for their lives after repeated shellings, seeking shelter in the region's main city Muzaffarabad.

"I along with my wife and six children travelled by foot through the night," said resident Tasawar Shah.

The Indian foreign ministry on Thursday also accused Pakistan of targeting civilians in villages along the LoC, and of supporting "armed terrorists" it said had crossed the border earlier in the week and killed three Indian soldiers.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British rule ended in 1947. Both claim the territory in full and have fought two wars over the mountainous region.

Rebel groups have for decades fought Indian soldiers for independence for the region or its merger with Pakistan. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.

Mr Johnson, in Pakistan for a two-day visit, also spoke about US president-elect Donald Trump's campaign threats to reconsider defending Nato allies unless they up defence spending.

"We need a strong Nato alliance and I think the president-elect is quite right to draw attention to the need to finance that alliance properly," he said.