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Saturday 25 January 2020

Clashes in Kashmir as thousands defy security crackdown

Kashmiri Muslim protesters throw rocks at Indian paramilitary soldiers in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir (AP)
Kashmiri Muslim protesters throw rocks at Indian paramilitary soldiers in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir (AP)
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard during curfew in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir (AP)

Government forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir have fired tear gas and shotguns as thousands of people defied a toughening security crackdown to protest against Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region.

At least 40 civilians were reportedly injured, one critically, as t ens of thousands of government forces patrolled the region and erected barbed wire and steel barricades on roads in an attempt to prevent protests after Friday Muslim prayers.

Chanting "Go India, go back" and "We want freedom," Kashmiris at dozens of locations defied the security restrictions.

Clashes erupted in at least 20 places after government forces fired tear gas and shotguns to stop protesters who tried to march on the main roads, police said.

The protesters responded by throwing rocks, they said.

A strict curfew and a series of communication blackouts have failed to stop six weeks of protests, as residents have struggled to cope with shortages of food, medicine and other necessities.

Shops, businesses and schools have remained closed because of the security lockdown and protest strikes since the killing of a popular rebel commander on July 8 that sparked some of Kashmir's largest protests against Indian rule in recent years.

At least 63 civilians have been killed and thousands injured, mostly by government forces firing bullets and shotguns at rock-throwing protesters. Two policemen have also been killed and hundreds of government forces have been injured in the clashes.

Worshippers were blocked on Friday from offering prayers at large mosques for the sixth consecutive week. However, prayers were allowed at small neighbourhood mosques.

In signs of an intensified crackdown against anti-India protesters since last week, counter-insurgency police and army soldiers have increasingly been accused of systematically raiding neighbourhoods, ransacking houses and beating residents to intimidate protesters.

Local volunteers have engaged in a massive effort to get food and medicine to people in besieged neighbourhoods, delivering items mostly at night.

The volunteers have also run free community kitchens at almost all major hospitals in Srinagar and other towns for the injured and their attendants.

India's top military commander in Kashmir, Lt Gen DS Hooda, told reporters that soldiers would be deployed to secure highways and roads for traffic.

Lt Gen Hooda appealed for calm and said the army regretted the killing of a college teacher in army custody on Thursday.

"These things are not sanctioned at any level (in the army). It's unacceptable," he said.

Meanwhile, a gunbattle raged in Karnah sector, close to the highly militarised Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, after rebels attacked an ammunition depot belonging to Indian border guards, an army officer said.

He said at least three soldiers were wounded and airlifted to an army hospital.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. Most Kashmiris want an end to Indian rule and favour independence or a merger with Pakistan.

In Islamabad, foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria said Pakistan's prime minister has written to the UN Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva urging him to send a mission to investigate "grave human rights violations in the Indian-occupied Kashmir".

On Thursday, an ambulance driver was injured when a paramilitary soldier fired at him as he drove through Srinagar's city centre with an emergency patient on board, police said.

He managed to drive to a hospital where he was admitted, police said.

KK Sharma, a top paramilitary official, said an investigation has been ordered and the officer who fired at the driver has been suspended.

More than 100 ambulances have been damaged in the last six weeks while ferrying injured people to hospitals. Drivers and rights groups have blamed both government forces and protesters for attacking them.

More than 68,000 people have been killed since rebel groups began fighting Indian forces in 1989 and in the subsequent Indian military crackdown. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebels, a charge Islamabad denies.


PA Media

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