NEW DELHI — India and Pakistan announced Thursday that their armed forces would cease firing across their shared border, the first such step since 2003 and a potentially significant move toward reducing tensions between the two rivals.
Military officials in the two countries released a joint statement saying they had agreed to a cease-fire that went into effect at midnight, including along the unofficial frontier in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Indian and Pakistani troops regularly exchange artillery and small-arms fire in the region, a situation that analysts have described as a war by other means. The low-grade conflict is deadly, with dozens of villagers and military personnel killed annually in recent years.
India accuses Pakistan of stoking a three-decade insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir by sending fighters and arms across the frontier. Pakistan denies the accusations.
Relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors have been frosty since 2019, when India conducted an airstrike in Pakistan after a terrorist attack killed 40 Indian troops in Kashmir. The two countries then engaged in their first aerial dogfight in nearly 50 years. Months later, India revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, further angering Pakistan.
Since then, cross-border firing has intensified. There were more than 5,000 such incidents in 2020, according to Indian government data, the highest figure since 2002.
“You’re looking at a lot of loss of life, with villagers getting killed on both sides,” said Happymon Jacob, a professor of international studies and author of a book on clashes between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, “Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics.”
The new agreement, if effective, would be “pathbreaking,” Jacob said. It would reduce violence and allow both countries to tell the international community that they are taking steps to stabilize Kashmir, he said.
Near the highly militarized frontier in Kashmir, the cease-fire announcement is a source of deep relief. Syed Ahmad Habib, 47, lives on the Indian side of the line, but his home is so close to the boundary that he can see houses in Pakistani-controlled territory.
“Someone who has not seen shells rain down cannot imagine the kind of life we are living,” said Habib, 47, who is from a village called Mandhar. A childhood friend died in shelling this year, he said. “If it has stopped, I am glad.”
This is a “very positive” move, said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst in Pakistan, who nevertheless cautioned that it remains unclear whether the agreement will be implemented successfully. If the firing ceases, Rizvi said, it opens the door to other confidence-building measures, such as making it easier for people and goods to travel between India and Pakistan.
In theory, a cease-fire agreement already exists between the two countries, which share both an international border and a 460-mile unofficial frontier in Kashmir known as the Line of Control.
The cease-fire understanding was announced in 2003, and, for the next several years, the Line of Control was relatively quiet. But after terrorists killed more than 160 people in Mumbai in 2008 — an attack carried out by a Pakistan-based militant group — cross-border firing increased. They have soared tenfold since 2014, according to official Indian data.
Indian officials have accused Pakistan of using the shelling to give cover to militants crossing into Indian-controlled territory, a charge that Pakistan denies. Commanders on both sides have the autonomy to decide when to fire, Jacob said.
Thursday’s announcement comes as India continues to grapple with tensions on a different border — the one with China. India and China recently disengaged their troops from one sensitive area after a months-long standoff that began with a deadly clash in June.
A period of calm on the border between India and Pakistan could serve both countries’ interests, analysts said. “It’s an important development,” said Arvind Gupta, a former deputy national security adviser in India. “Whether it is tactical or something with long-term consequences remains to be seen.”
Bashir Ahmad Wathloo, 45, lives near the town of Uri on the Indian side of the Line of Control. His aunt was killed three years ago when she was unable to run away with the rest of the family from falling shells.
On Thursday, Wathloo was sitting with friends in front of a store, an activity he has avoided for more than a year after shelling intensified. The mood was festive. It felt good to be outside without fearing for one’s life, he said.
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The Washington Post’s Shams Irfan in Hyderabad, India, and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.