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2,000 in shelters as Kashmir border troops spar

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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Thousands of villagers stayed in shelters near the disputed region of Kashmir's de facto border Thursday after Indian and Pakistani border troops traded gunfire and shelling overnight despite an attempt by their commanders to defuse escalating tensions.

A recent flare-up in violence has left two civilians and a border guard dead on the Indian side of what's widely recognized as an international border between the two countries.

"We have witnessed intense firing and shelling in the past two weeks," said civilian official Shantamanu.

Up to 15,000 villagers fled to government buildings temporarily converted into shelters. By Thursday, many villagers had returned home, but about 2,000 were afraid and elected to stay.

Elsewhere, six other people — four militants and two Indian army troops — died this week in skirmishes further north into the Himalayas where the border is a U.N.-drawn and heavily militarized line of control.

Many saw the chaos as part of what's become a predictable cycle of violence, as warmer summer weather invites protesters and adversaries outdoors in a region riven by decades-old animosities. Last year's flare-up similarly sent thousands to temporary shelters for days.

On Wednesday, commanders from both the Indian and Pakistani border forces met in an effort to calm the tensions. But within hours, the firing resumed and lasted through the night, according to Indian border security official Vinod Yadav.

Since 2003, a cease-fire between the two nuclear-armed neighbors has largely held despite the small but regular skirmishes each summer. Both sides routinely blame the other for starting them and insist they are only retaliating.

Many had hoped relations would improve after Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over as Indian prime minister in May and invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration. Those hopes were dashed last week when India's government canceled talks between their foreign secretaries.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since 1947 over their competing claims to the Kashmir region. Since 1947, they have each administered part of it.

India accuses Pakistan of helping anti-Indian militants by providing gunfire as cover for incursions into the Indian side. Pakistan staunchly denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the militants and to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.

While the line of control is guarded by the Indian and Pakistani armies, each country uses a separate paramilitary border force to guard the lower-altitude frontier, defined by coils of razor wire that snake across foothills marked by ancient villages, tangled bushes and fields of rice and corn.

Watchtowers stand every few hundred meters (yards) on either side, with some Indian and Pakistani border troops stationed so close together that they can see and hear each other.

"Our lives are literally governed by how these troops behave," said Kishen Lal, a 60-year-old farmer who was sleeping in a government shelter at night but returning to his village of Ranbir Singh Pura during the day to tend his cattle and fields.

"An officer on the Pakistani side will have a headache or is unhappy about something, he fires on the Indian side and triggers a clash. Or if someone from the Indian border guards is feeling down and unhappy, he will vent his anger by firing at the Pakistani side. In between, we are the people who suffer," Lal said.

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