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Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

  • Published at 09:36 am August 24th, 2019
INDIA-KASHMIR/
Kashmiris run for cover as Indian security forces (unseen) fire teargas shells during clashes, after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 23, 2019 Reuters

This was the first such call by separatists seeking Kashmir's secession from India

Security forces used tear gas against stone-throwing local residents in Indian Kashmir's main city of Srinagar on Friday, after a third straight week of protests in the restive Soura district despite the imposition of tight restrictions.

Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a centre of the protests, as hundreds of locals staged a protest march against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to withdraw autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir on August 5.

Posters appeared overnight this week in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region's main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), to protest against India's decision.

This was the first such call by separatists seeking Kashmir's secession from India. India's move was accompanied by travel and communication restrictions in Kashmir that are still largely in place, although some landlines were restored last week.

The UNMOGIP was set up in 1949 after the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a Himalayan region both countries claim in full but rule in part. The group monitors ceasefire violations along the border between the countries.

In a narrow lane of Soura, blocked like many others with rocks and sheets of metal, residents hurled stones at the paramilitary police to stop them moving into an area around the local mosque, Jinab Sahib, which had earlier been packed for Friday prayers.

The police responded with several rounds of tear gas and chili grenades but were beaten back by dozens of stone-pelting men. Some men suffered pellet injuries.

The locals said the security forces had been repeatedly trying to move into Soura, often using tear gas and pellets.

"We are neither safe at home, nor outside," said Rouf, who declined to give his full name. He had rubbed salt into his face to counteract the effects of tear gas.

The afternoon had begun peacefully, with men and women streaming into Jinab Sahib for afternoon prayers. A cleric then raised a call for "Azadi" – Urdu for freedom – several times, and declared Kashmir's allegiance to neighbouring Pakistan.

"Long live Pakistan," the cleric said, as worshippers roared back in approval.

Trump offers to mediate

US President Donald Trump plans to discuss Kashmir when he meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in France this weekend, a senior US administration official said on Thursday.

Trump, who has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, will press Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir's autonomy, and stress the need for dialogue, the official said.

Some Indian media reports on Friday said "terrorists" were trying to enter India from Afghanistan, citing unnamed government officials.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan responded on Twitter on Friday that such claims were being made to "divert attention" away from what he called human rights violations in Kashmir.

"The Indian leadership will in all probability attempt a false flag operation to divert attention," Khan said.

Khan's comments came a day after United Nations experts called on the Indian government to "end the crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests" in Kashmir, saying it would increase regional tensions.

"The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offence," they said in a statement.

At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets since security forces launched their crackdown, data from the Himalayan region's two main hospitals shows.

Large swathes of Srinagar remain deserted with shops shut except for some provision stores with shutters half-down. Police vans patrolled some areas announcing a curfew and asking people to stay indoors.

On the Dal Lake, long rows of houseboats, normally packed with tourists at this time of year, floated closed and empty, as police patrolled its mirror-calm waters in boats.