India and Pakistan locked in border fighting amid coronavirus crisis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian and Pakistani troops in disputed Kashmir are engaged in their most frequent cross-border fighting of at least two years, official data shows, even as both nuclear-armed rivals battle surging coronavirus outbreaks.

Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between the neighbours but tension was renewed after New Delhi withdrew the autonomy of the Himalayan region last August and split it into federally-administered territories.

Both countries claim the region in full, but rule only parts, and often accuse each other of breaching a 2003 ceasefire pact by shelling and firing across the Line of Control (LoC), an informal border in Kashmir, and of killing dozens every year.

Indian Army data reviewed by Reuters shows 411 ceasefire violations by Pakistan’s military in March, the highest number in a single month since at least 2018. That compares with 267 violations in March last year recorded by the Indian Army.

“(The) Pakistan Army never initiates ceasefire violations along LoC, but it has always responded befittingly to Indian Army’s unprovoked firing,” said Major-General Babar Iftikhar, of the public relations wing of the Pakistan Army.

Iftikhar said Pakistan’s military had recorded 705 ceasefire violations by the Indian Army since the beginning of the year.

The Indian Army data showed 1,197 Pakistani violations during the same period.

Reuters is not in a position to independently verify the competing claims.

Four Indian army officials said the heightened border activity was a cover to help militants from Pakistan-backed groups infiltrate into Indian Kashmir, as some troops help to run health camps and hand out food in the battle on the virus.

“The increase in ceasefire violations is an indication that Pakistan is trying to push militants into the Kashmir valley,” said one of the officials, who all sought anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media.

India has 5,734 infections, including 166 deaths, while Pakistan has reported 4,072 cases and 58 deaths, with the military of each helping its government’s efforts against the virus.

As summer approaches, infiltration into Kashmir typically picks up. An Indian security official said between 250 and 300 militants were estimated to be ready to cross over from Pakistan, citing intelligence reports.

“This is the time when our (border) fence is the weakest,” with damage caused by winter snows, said the official, who sought anonymity.

On Monday, the Indian Army said in a statement it killed five Pakistan-backed militants at the LoC during a firefight in heavy snow, with five of its special forces soldiers also killed.

Pakistan denies giving material support to militants in Kashmir but says it provides moral and diplomatic backing for the self-determination of Kashmiri people.

Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam in ISLAMABAD and Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez