Thursday, June 26, 2008

Anti-India protests paralyze Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Tens of thousands of Kashmiris filled the streets for a fourth day of protests Thursday, after police killings during earlier demonstrations enflamed their anger over the transfer of land to a Hindu shrine in this Muslim-majority region.
Protesters clashed with riot police in several parts of Srinagar, the main city of India's portion of Kashmir. Police responded to rock-throwers by firing live ammunition and tear gas into the air in an attempt to disperse the mobs, said police officer Sajjad Ahmed.
More than 20,000 people were protesting in towns across the Himalayan state, Ahmed said, and thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers were spread out to control the angry mobs.
No injuries were immediately reported Thursday.
Three people have been killed and dozens wounded since Monday as police tried to quell the protests that erupted over the transfer of 99 acres of land by the state government to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, a trust running a popular Hindu shrine.
Protesters accuse the Indian government of planning to build Hindu settlements in India's only Muslim majority state in order to change the demographic balance in the region.
Across Kashmir, shops and offices were shut down in strikes and public transport was squeezed off the roads by marchers who filled the streets chanting, "Down with India," and "We want freedom!" The state government canceled ongoing school and college exams across the region.
"We are protesting against the land transfer, which is one of India's grand designs to consolidate the occupation of Kashmir," said Mohammad Iqbal, who was marching in Srinagar's main business district.
In the predominantly Hindu city of Jammu, several hundred protesters from a coalition of hard-line Hindu nationalist groups staged counter-protests to demand that construction go ahead at the site.
The activists burned tires and blocked roads but there were no reports of clashes, local police chief Kondaveeti Rajendra said.
On Wednesday, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the chief minister of India's Jammu-Kashmir state, sought to ease the crisis by promising there would be no construction on the transferred land and pledging to meet with the state's political parties to address the protesters' grievances.
The Amarnath shrine is a cave that housed a large icicle revered by Hindus as an incarnation of the Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus, who consider the cave sacred, are currently on an annual pilgrimage to visit the cave.
Thousands of soldiers have been deployed along the pilgrims' route.
In the past, Islamic separatists have targeted the pilgrimage, claiming that Hindu-majority India uses the annual religious event as a political statement to bolster its claim over the region, which is divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both.
About a dozen militant groups have been fighting since 1989 for the independence of Kashmir or its merger with neighboring Pakistan. At least 68,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

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