Pakistan and India exchanged fire across the de-facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir over the weekend, with Pakistan dismissing India's assertion that its forces crossed over the border. (Video: Reuters / Photo: AP)

Villagers in three areas along the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir said this past week that they had fled their homes in fear after intense shelling and firing from the Indian side but that they did not believe India’s claim Thursday that it had sent armed troops to conduct late-night “surgical strikes” on militant targets there. 

In several dozen interviews, residents of the Bhimber, Chamb and Sahmani districts adjoining the Line of Control said they had been jarred from sleep by the barrage of firepower Wednesday. But none said they had seen or heard anything that supported India’s claim that it carried out cross-border strikes on several staging areas for militant groups that left “double digits” of militants dead.

Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied India’s claims, saying that Indian troops only fired small arms across the Line of Control, killing two Pakistani soldiers. Tensions between the rival nuclear powers are at the highest level in a decade. 

Muhammad Bota, 40, a mason in this hillside village, said that his son woke him up shouting, “India has attacked!” and that the night was filled with noise.

“We are used to routine shelling, but this was unending, with deafening sounds,” he said. “We believed it was the start of war, and I prayed for the safety of my family and recited all the Koran verses I could remember.”

But Bota, like many other residents interviewed, said he did not see any signs of Indian troops attacking or crossing the fortified line less than a mile away.

“All the villagers were up, and we didn’t see any troops from the other side or helicopters,” he said. “India says it killed militants here, but the people who live here know each other for generations. If there were some militants somewhere around, they couldn’t have gone undetected. This is all propaganda of India.”

In Bhimber, a town several miles from the Line of Control, a store salesman named Mehran Younas Sheikh, 31, said that all schools and government offices had been shut down since the intensive firing started and that many people living close to the border had fled to the town.

“It’s a very beautiful area,” Sheikh said of the region’s forested ridges of pine and birch, “but now one feels and witness the silence of death, apart from the crossfiring between the two armies during the night.”

Hostilities between India and Pakistan, fanned by months of violent clashes between Indian troops and Kashmiri protesters, escalated sharply after Sept. 18, when 19 Indian soldiers died in what India said was an attack on their camp by militants who had infiltrated from Pakistan. 

Under domestic pressure to retaliate, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced it had conducted a five-hour overnight paramilitary attack on several suspected terrorist camps, killing scores. Pakistan’s military claimed that it killed eight Indian soldiers in retaliatory fire and that two of its men had died when India shelled a border post in Sahmani. 

A cross-border strike by India would be the first major breach of the Line of Control it has publicly acknowledged in years of hostile but cautious relations with Pakistan. In the past it has avoided an overt provocation that could risk a wider conflict, while accusing Pakistan of harboring and supporting terrorist groups.  

In several villages, residents described fleeing quickly from the heavy late-night gunfire, many leaving their livestock and crops. Bashir Papra, 55, said his family decided to leave their home in Chamb because the Indian shelling “was so heavy we felt our whole village would come down.”

Some residents said they were so exhausted by years of living with tension and fear that they would almost rather see the two countries fight it out. Muhammad Kurshid, 26, a Chamb resident, said he has faith in Pakistan’s military leaders to win in such a conflict.

“You would think I am insane to want a war,” he said. “No, I am not, it’s just that we can’t spend a normal daily life.”

In Sahmani, a verdant district along the Line of Control with army posts every few hundred yards, residents said they had a close view of activities along the border and described seeing the sky light up with shelling above a mountain ridge where Pakistani troops are stationed. 

“If anyone is moving on the mountain, we can see them easily from here,” said villager Faheem Ahmed, 48. “There was no activity of enemy troops on the mountain, which is the only way they can come.”

Constable reported from Kabul. Annie Gowen in New Delhi contributed to this report.