ISLAMABAD: Senior Pakistani and Indian military officials spoke Tuesday by hotline after days of intense cross-border firing in the disputed region of Kashmir heightened tensions.

At least 20 civilians have been killed and thousands of people on both sides of the de facto border in Kashmir have fled their homes in what residents have described as some of the worst shelling in years.

The surge in violence between the nuclear-armed neighbours, who have fought two wars over the Himalayan territory, has coincided with the joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Pakistani and an Indian.

Pakistan’s military said Tuesday it had voiced concern at continued Indian firing across the disputed frontier in Kashmir and in Punjab province.

“A routine weekly hotline contact was established today between directors of military operations of Pakistan and Indian armies,” a senior military official said in Islamabad on condition of anonymity.

“Pakistan army’s director of military operations conveyed concern to Indian counterpart and pointed towards India’s consistent unprovoked firing on civil population living along the Line of Control and the working boundary.”

Clashes occur regularly along the disputed border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, as well as along the frontier dividing Indian Kashmir from Pakistan’s Punjab province.

The latest shelling began over a week ago, and while its intensity has lessened since Friday Pakistani officials say firing has continued.

Islamabad said Friday that both countries shared a duty to defuse the situation, while India’s foreign ministry maintained that “de-escalation is now entirely in Pakistan’s hands.”

Kashmir has been a festering sore in India-Pakistan relations ever since independence from Britain in 1947, with each country controlling part of the scenic mountain territory but claiming all of it.

Fighting between Indian forces and rebels seeking independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan has killed tens of thousands – mostly civilians – since 1989.

There had been hopes of an early resumption in peace talks between the two countries, when India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in in June.

But India called off talks last month after Pakistan consulted with Indian Kashmiri separatists, in a move some saw as a sign of a tougher stance under India’s new right-wing government.

Pakistan’s Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai last week invited the Indian and Pakistani leaders to accompany her and fellow winner Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian child rights activist, to the award ceremony.

But just hours later there was a fresh exchange of fire in Kashmir, and the offices of the two leaders both declined this week to say whether they would accept Malala’s overture. -AFP