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Frightened Residents Flee Attacks

May 27, 1999

ATHMUQAM, Pakistan (AP) _ For residents of this Pakistani border town, it was another night of fear in the trenches they have dug near their homes.

Although Athmuqam is 65 miles south of the main conflict zone, residents say Indian artillery attacks from across the border have been relentless. Most residents have fled Athmuqam, just half a mile from the troubled border. The few who remain must sleep in trenches outside.

``We live in a constant state of fear,″ said Mohammad Yassen, a 64-year-old farmer. ``The firing can start any time without warning ... We have been ruined. Our houses, fields and cattle are all lost.″

Yassen said he saw a neighbor killed last weekend by Indian shelling. ``I left my family at a relative’s place and came here for a day, risking my life to check my house and fields,″ he said.

Khawja Abdul Majeed, a clerk with the Forest Department, said repeated attacks over the past 10 days had turned Athmuqam, once home to 10,000 people, into a virtual ghost town.

``People are frightened . . . and the majority of them have already left for safer places,″ he said.

India says the airstrikes to the north on Wednesday and today _ the first in the disputed region in 20 years _ were confined to its own territory. But the Pakistan military said Indian planes dropped bombs into Pakistani territory three times today _ a claim denied by India.

Many Athmuqam residents have headed to the capital of Pakistan’s Azad Kashmir province or to a refugee camp just 18 miles away in Thunian.

Refugees report difficult conditions at the camp.

Overcrowding has forced up to 20 people to live together in tents. Others sleep outside. There is little food, and evening temperatures approach freezing.

``Our children are starving and shivering in cold, but there is no help coming in from the government,″ Sahab Jan Bibi, a refugee from Athmuqam. ``We have no money to buy medicine or food.″

Most of the refugees are furious with the Pakistani government, saying it has done little to help. The semi-autonomous Azad Kashmir government told residents to dig trenches and last year handed out small weapons.

Kashmir is divided between the two countries and border skirmishes are common. But both residents and government officials say the fighting has escalated over the past 18 days.

Pakistan says it gives only moral, diplomatic and political support to insurgents in the Indian-controlled portion, the only Muslim-dominated state of Hindu India.

India says Pakistan arms and finances the decade-old insurgency, which demands either independence or union with Islamic Pakistan.

For young Pakistani refugees, the nights are spent trying to forget the artillery attacks that drove them away from their home.

``We were in school when (an Indian shell) hit at a nearby mountain. The sound was so terrible that everyone in our class started screaming and crying and some even fainted with fear,″ said 9-year-old Mohammed Waqar, describing an attack last week.

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