Islamabad: British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called for an end to violence in Kashmir during a visit to Islamabad on Thursday, warning tensions between India and Pakistan are holding the region back from becoming an “incredible boomzone”.
Johnson, who said he was visiting Pakistan for the first time, spoke a day after at least nine people were killed in Pakistani-held Kashmir when a civilian bus was hit by cross-border fire.
The deadly incident, which came after months of dangerous tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals, saw Pakistani and Indian military officials speak via a special hotline, according to the Pakistani military, which said it reserves “the right to respond”.
Johnson warned former colonial power Britain could not act as a mediator in the nearly 70-year-old dispute over the Himalayan region, saying it must be up to India and Pakistan to find a “lasting solution” that allows for Kashmiri self-determination.
He also voiced concern over recent incidents “on both sides” of the de facto Kashmir border, the Line of Control (LoC).
“We call for an end to the violence and for both sides to exercise restraint,” he said, framing the issue as a matter of economy as well as security.
“Look at the incredible human potential of Pakistan and its neighbours ... and then imagine what the future could be like if this was sorted out. What an incredible boomzone it could be.”
The “mutual sequestration” of the Indian and Pakistani economies was holding the region back from fulfilling this potential, he warned.
Tensions in Kashmir reached dangerous levels in September, after India blamed Pakistani militants for a raid on an army base that killed 19 soldiers.
India said it had responded by carrying out “surgical strikes” across the heavily militarised border, sparking a furious reaction from Islamabad, which denied they took place.
There have since been repeated outbreaks of cross-border firing, with both sides reporting deaths and injuries including of civilians.
After Wednesday’s shooting Pakistani authorities closed the road leading to the scenic Neelum Valley, a popular tourist destination near the LoC, for security reasons.
Residents told AFP they had fled the valley fearing for their lives after repeated shellings, seeking shelter in the region’s main city Muzaffarabad.
“I along with my wife and six children travelled by foot through the night,” said resident Tasawar Shah.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British rule ended in 1947. Both claim the territory in full and have fought two wars over the mountainous region.
Rebel groups have for decades fought Indian soldiers for independence for the region or its merger with Pakistan. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.
Johnson, who is in Pakistan for a two-day visit, also spoke about US President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign threats to reconsider defending Nato allies unless they up defence spending.
“We need a strong Nato alliance and I think the president-elect is quite right to draw attention to the need to finance that alliance properly,” he told reporters.