Indian and Pakistani soldiers again targeted each other’s posts and villages along their volatile frontier in the disputed region of Kashmir, killing at least five civilians and two soldiers, and wounding several others, officials on both sides said on Saturday.
Fighting resumed overnight into dawn on Saturday, leaving two siblings and their mother dead in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The three died after a shell fired by Pakistani soldiers hit their home in Poonch region near the so-called Line of Control that divides the Himalayan territory of Kashmir between the two nuclear-armed rivals, police said.
The children’s father was critically wounded and has been admitted to hospital.
In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a man and a boy were killed by Indian shelling in Nakiyal, said Nasrullah Khan, a hospital official. Khan said a man was also wounded in the Tatta Pani area.
Pakistan’s army said in a statement that two of its soldiers were killed in Nakiyal in an “exchange of fire while targeting Indian posts undertaking firing on civilian population”.
Separately, a police official in Rawalakot, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that a man had been wounded and three homes destroyed in Indian shelling overnight.
Also in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, government official Umar Azam said Indian troops with heavy weapons “indiscriminately targeted border villagers” along the Line of Control.
Both countries’ officials used the routine description for the military confrontations, saying their soldiers retaliated “befittingly,” and blamed the other for “unprovoked” violation of the 2003-ceasefire accord at several sectors along the Kashmir frontier, targeting both army posts as well as villages.
Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday, carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against rebels blamed for a suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed 40 Indian troops last month.
Rebel groups have been fighting Indian rule since 1989 and demand that Kashmir be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the region, and most people support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Pakistan retaliated to the Indian air strikes by shooting down a MiG-21 fighter jet on Wednesday and detained its pilot, who was returned to India on Friday in a peace gesture.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman crossed the Wagah-Attari border at around 9pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Friday, hours later than expected.
A press statement by Pakistan’s foreign ministry said Varthaman has been returned to India and that he was treated “with dignity” during his custody.
“While in captivity, he was treated with dignity and in line with international law. Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr Imran Khan announced his return as a goodwill gesture aimed at de-escalating rising tensions with India,” said the statement.
Varthaman had become a national hero after purported footage that went viral showed him being beaten by locals after being shot down before Pakistani soldiers intervened, with social media abuzz with #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero hashtags.
His polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary – “I am sorry major, I am not supposed to tell you this” – won the handlebar-moustached pilot particular sympathy in India.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, said the situation remained “critical” following Varthaman’s release amid concerns over how to “defuse this escalating crisis”.
“The Pakistani military is on full red alert, they are flying constant air patrols all over Pakistan and although the airspace has been open, the movement of aircraft between India and Pakistan, especially commercial aircraft is still under restrictions,” said Hyder.