SRINAGAR, India – Massive protests and clashes erupted in Indian Kashmir on Saturday after the bodies of two young women were found amid claims that they were raped and murdered by Indian soldiers, officials and locals said.
Indian authorities denied the allegations, saying the women appeared to have drowned in a local stream.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir, and anger over the two deaths brought thousands to the town of Shopian, where protesters hurled rocks at security forces and ransacked government offices.
The crowd chanted, "Produce the killers" and "We want freedom," while they marched in the town center, 40 miles (60 kilometers) south of Srinagar, the region's biggest city.
Police fired tear gas and used batons to break up the protests, said a local police officer on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy. He said at least 25 people were injured in the clashes.
Human rights groups and separatist leaders have long accused the Indian military of using rape and sexual molestation to intimidate the local population.
Police official Javaid Masood said authorities recovered the bodies of an 18-year-old woman and her 23-year-old aunt from a local stream Saturday morning. The women were reported missing after they failed to return home from their orchard on Friday, Masood said.
"Post-mortems have been conducted and preliminary investigation suggests that there are no signs of physical assault on the bodies," Masood said.
He added that an investigation into the deaths was ongoing.
Many locals rejected the official explanation.
"There are no chances of accidental drowning as the stream is very shallow and even school kids cross it," said Mushtaq Ahmed, a local resident.
Most people in Indian Kashmir favor independence from Hindu-majority India, or a merger with Muslim Pakistan.
The disputed Himalayan territory is split between India and Pakistan, but claimed in full by both.
Separatists have been fighting Indian authorities since 1989 in a conflict that has killed more than 68,000 people, most of them civilians.