Villagers who live along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir’s Uri sector fled their homes in panic allegedly after Pakistani troops asked residents to leave, The Indian Express reported on Sunday. Nearly a thousand villagers have sought refuge in Uri town since Thursday, when the cross-border shelling began.

The Indian and Pakistani armies on Saturday exchanged heavy artillery fire for the first time since 2003, when the two countries signed the ceasefire agreement, the Greater Kashmir reported. “Five residential houses were damaged in heavy exchange of artillery between the two sides at Silikote and Churanda villages,” the newspaper quoted an unidentified official as saying.

Abid Hussain, a resident of Silikote, told Greater Kashmir that the Pakistani Army had used a public address system to issue warnings to villagers before firing the artillery shells. “We had no option but to run for our lives,” he said.

The Indian Express reported that the Pakistani Army sounded the warning at 11.30 am on Saturday, giving the villagers an hour to vacate their houses. Tilawari village also came under fire. “This could be a military strategy,” Baramulla Deputy Commissioner Nasir Naqash told the newspaper. “This could be a strategy to create fear.”

Brigadier YS Ahlawat said the Pakistan Army has been continuously violating the ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in Uri sector since February 19. The Indian Army has retaliated appropriately, he said.

“Displaying extreme cowardice and unprofessionalism, it has been targeting innocent villagers and causing damage to their houses through mortar shelling,” Ahlawat told reporters. “Army has provided immediate relief to villagers including food, medicine, drinking water and have provisioned sleeping bags in view of winter.”

While the cross-border firings were earlier restricted to areas south of the Pir Panjal range, Pakistan has been violating the ceasefire across a larger area along the Line of Control of late, The Indian Express quoted unidentified officials as saying.

Pakistani troops might have resorted to such shelling earlier than usual this year because of the low volume of snowfall, the officials said. They have estimated that more than 200 militants are waiting along the Line of Control, north of Pir Panjal, to cross over to Jammu and Kashmir. Uri is one of the major infiltration routes for these militants.