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After pilot is freed, fatal violence in Kashmir

Pakistani Kashmiris carried the coffin of a civilian at a funeral ceremony near Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, Saturday.
Pakistani Kashmiris carried the coffin of a civilian at a funeral ceremony near Muzaffarabad, Kashmir, Saturday.(SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Intense shelling erupted along the disputed border between India and Pakistan on Saturday, killing several civilians and making it clear that hostilities between the two nuclear-armed nations were hardly over — only a day after Pakistan handed over a captured Indian fighter pilot in what it called a “goodwill gesture.”

At least five civilians and two soldiers were killed, officials on both sides said.

At the same time, independent security analysts continue to question India’s claims this past week that it had killed “a very large number” of terrorists at a major training camp in a cross-border airstrike. The bold strike set off an enormous mobilization of Indian and Pakistani forces and a cycle of military attacks, bringing South Asia to red alert.

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Michael Sheldon, a researcher at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, said Saturday that after studying satellite imagery of the area in Pakistan that India had bombed, he could see “no evidence any buildings were hit.” He added, “It appears to me they didn’t hit their targets.”

Instead, he said, all publicly available evidence and accounts from witnesses on the ground indicated that the Indian bombs had landed in an unpopulated forest and had taken out some pine trees. Sheldon set out his argument in an online article titled “Surgical Strike in Pakistan a Botched Operation?”

The administration of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who faces an election in a few months, had presented the airstrike as a robust response against a terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammed, that claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing in February that killed more than 40 Indian troops.

The troops were part of a large convoy crossing Kashmir, a highly militarized mountainous territory claimed by India and Pakistan and the source of violent tensions between the two countries for years. Indian officials have declined to offer any photographs, witness accounts, or other tangible evidence that their airstrike Tuesday killed a large number of terrorists.

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But they remain adamant that the Pakistani government has allowed anti-India militant groups to operate in Pakistan, which officials there deny. Indian officials have said the target of their airstrike was a hilltop training center run by Jaish-e-Muhammed near the town of Balakot in northern Pakistan.

Villagers near Balakot said the group — which the United States considers a terrorist organization — runs a religious school in the area and it had operated a militant training camp that closed more than 10 years ago.

They told reporters that no structures were damaged during the Indian airstrike and that the only person hurt was a 62-year-old man who suffered a small cut above his eye. The villagers led reporters to several large holes in the ground in the forest, where they said the bombs fell.

Western intelligence officials say that militant groups in Pakistan still provide material support and expertise, such as bomb-making skills, to insurgents fighting Indian rule in the Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir.

On Wednesday, Pakistan mobilized its air force and shot down an Indian fighter jet above Kashmir, capturing the pilot. On Friday, Pakistan released the pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, calling it a gesture to ease tensions.

On Saturday, Varthaman was recuperating at a hospital in India’s capital, New Delhi, undergoing medical tests and meeting with officials.

The prospect of a major conflict erupting between India and Pakistan, which was a real fear just a few days ago, may have receded somewhat. But this region remains jittery. On Saturday, United Airlines rerouted some of its flights from India, citing concerns about the airspace.

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Residents said the artillery battle that raged Saturday was much heavier than usual, with both sides pounding each other’s positions for hours.

“The shells are landing everywhere,” said Najeeb Ahmad, a primary-school teacher who lives on the Indian side of the disputed border, called the Line of Control.

Along the border, artillery exchanges break out all the time and large rounds continually sail over the troops dug in on each side and crash into nearby villages, maiming and killing civilians.

Every night, villagers crawl into bunkers and huddle together, waiting for the intense pounding to stop. Sometimes, there is no place to hide. The people who live along the border say their continued existence is now purely up to the soldiers’ mood.

Ahmad, the teacher, said an artillery shell from the Pakistani side had smashed into a house where a woman was living with her two children. “They were sleeping in the kitchen,” he said. “All of them died.”

India and Pakistan accused the other of firing first.

Pakistani military officials said Saturday they had lost two soldiers, and two civilians in the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan were killed by Indian shelling. A Pakistani military statement said its troops then gave “a befitting response.”

Pakistan has also threatened to lodge a formal complaint against India at the United Nations, accusing it of “eco-terrorism” over the bombs that damaged several pine trees.

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A peacemaking plea urging both sides to quit fighting was published as a letter in one of India’s leading newspapers and signed by more than 600 scholars, lawyers, scientists, writers, and actors.

“Even a limited confrontation would resolve nothing,” the letter said. “Unfortunately, the climate of jingoism that tends to develop around this sort of situation is obscuring these simple truths.”