NEW DELHI • Indian and Pakistani troops exchanged fresh fire across their border yesterday as United Nations (UN) chief Ban Ki Moon offered to mediate between the nuclear-armed neighbours following an alarming spike in tensions.
Two days after Indian troops carried out a series of strikes across the Pakistani side of their dividing line in disputed Kashmir, officials said there had been cross-border skirmishes further south.
Although there were no reports of casualties, the predawn exchanges heightened the fear among villagers living along the border, tens of thousands of whom have already been ordered to leave home.
"There were small arms fire and mortar shells fire from across the border in Akhnoor sector which lasted for around two hours," said Mr Pawan Kotwal, a top civilian official in India's Jammu and Kashmir state.
A Pakistan military statement said its troops had "befittingly responded to Indian unprovoked firing" in the Bhimber sector on the Pakistani side.
NEED FOR MEDIATION
The time has come for bold intervention by him if we are to avoid a crisis because we can see a crisis building up.
PAKISTANI ENVOY MALEEHA LODHI, who met UN chief Ban Ki Moon at the UN headquarters in New York.
The two countries, separated at birth at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, have fought three full-blown wars in the last seven decades - including two over Kashmir.
The Himalayan region, the Indian side of which forms the bulk of the country's only Muslim majority state, is at the heart of the latest tensions which have been mounting in the last three months.
Since a charismatic Kashmiri separatist was shot dead by Indian soldiers in early July, more than 80 civilians have been killed in the region, many of whom had joined street protests in defiance of a curfew order.
A Pakistan-based militant group then carried out a raid on an Indian army base last month which killed 19 soldiers, the deadliest such attack in over a decade.
Amid massive public anger over the raid, India has sought to isolate Pakistan - whom it accuses of sponsoring militant groups - and has managed to persuade nearly all its other neighbours to boycott a regional summit which was to have been held in Islamabad next month.
India's announcement that it had carried out "surgical strikes" in the early hours of Thursday on militant posts on the Pakistani side of the Kashmiri frontier, in turn, provoked fury in Islamabad. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif denounced what he called "naked aggression".
Pakistani envoy Maleeha Lodhi told Agence France-Presse she met Mr Ban at the UN headquarters in New York.
Mr Ban called on "both sides to exercise maximum restraint and take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation", a statement from his spokesman said after the meeting.
The UN chief said India and Pakistan should address differences through diplomacy and dialogue, and offered to mediate.
"His good offices are available, if accepted by both sides," the UN spokesman said.
Dr Lodhi told the media: "The time has come for bold intervention by him if we are to avoid a crisis because we can see a crisis building up."
India's UN mission said in a statement that Thursday's strikes were a "measured counter-terrorist" response and there was "no desire to aggravate the situation".
But aware things could yet escalate, India has evacuated thousands of people from near the northern border in Punjab state as well as in Jammu.
Meanwhile, in the Battal sector of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, normal life has also come to a halt.
"Our market is closed as no one dares to venture outside," said shopkeeper Shujaat Kazi. "Children are not going out as their schools are closed.
"People are very disturbed."