Britons flee border raids in Kashmir

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THE VISIT to Pakistan was anything but the summer holiday Iftikhar Ahmed, an information technology consultant from Wolverhampton, had expected.

Like thousands of other Britons of Pakistani descent, he regularly visits relatives in Pakistan. But last Sunday, as he lunched with his in-laws in the village of Piana, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, artillery shells rained down.

He is one of hundreds of Britons caught in the crossfire between India and Pakistan. Although exchanges in this disputed region occur every year, residents on the Pakistani side have never experienced events like those of this year, sparked by what India calls "Pakistani-backed infiltrators" on its territory.

Iftikhar Ahmed, a former Royal Navy lieutenant, said the aftermath of the bombardment of Piana was a scene he would never forget.

"There were two very loud bangs in the centre of the village. The first shell killed two adults and three children almost instantly. Minutes later a second shell exploded, killing another person outright." A seventh victim died on the way to hospital.

Mr Ahmed did what he could to help with the dead and injured, before fleeing to the town of Bhimber, further away from the line of control. In his haste, he left behind his passport and tickets and will have to risk his personal security to return for them.

Other members of his family fled too. His cousin Ikram Begum managed to take her documents with her and is now desperate to return to her husband and six children in Dudley.

Another cousin, Mehboob Ahmed Khan, a sales assistant at Safeway in Birmingham, spoke of his distress at the shelling of the village.

"It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in my life," he said. "There was blood everywhere."

According to Muslim custom, the victims were buried quickly. Hundreds of mourners turned out to pay their respects, including the Pakistani government minister responsible for Kashmir, Majeed Malik. But for those who witnessed the scenes in Piana, the scars will take some time to heal.

"I have been coming to Kashmir regularly since 1987 and shells have never landed this close," said Mr Ahmed.

"Indeed, this time it was too close." He is relieved that none of his three children - who had been keen on a family holiday in Pakistan - was with him this time.

Many of Britain's Pakistani community are originally from this part of Kashmir, and the authorities in Pakistan estimate that there are hundreds of Britons in villages along the Line of Control at present.

With India reiterating its determination to flush out militants from its side of the Line of Control, the risks to civilians in the area are still high.

Most of those displaced from the front line by the latest exchanges of fire are staying with family and friends elsewhere in Pakistani Kashmir.

But for everyone, the clear priority is to get away from the troubled region as soon as possible.