SRINAGAR, India – SRINAGAR, India (AP) — India sent army troops into the streets of Kashmir as it intensified a crackdown on increasingly angry separatist protests in the region, where three more Muslim demonstrators were killed in clashes, police said.
Paramilitary forces and police have taken the lead in confronting protesters since widespread protests began in June, but with violence escalating over the past week, the government has searched for a new strategy, settling on bringing the military in on Friday.
While some Indian officials have called for easing harsh security laws as a goodwill gesture, a top state official said Friday the government would use all its powers to restore order.
"The government has to assert its writ, and appeasement will not work. We'll take every legal measure to stop the protests now," said Taj Mohi-u-Din, an influential Cabinet minister in the state government.
At least 97 people have been killed in the recent demonstrations demanding the mostly Muslim region be given independence from Hindu-dominated India or be allowed to merge with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
As part of a new security plan, army troops patrolled several towns and villages across the Himalayan region Friday and guarded the road leading to the airport in Srinagar, the region's main city.
The use of the army, which normally patrols the frontier with Pakistan and fights against militants, is likely to further anger residents, who have lived under rolling government curfews and separatist strikes for much of the summer.
"This is India's last resort," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader. "What we've been repeatedly saying should now be clear to all, that this place is under martial law."
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah came under heavy criticism in July when, in a symbolic show of force, he called in the army to march in Srinagar. That was the first time in nearly two decades that soldiers patrolled in the city, though they did not get into any confrontations with any protesters at that time.
On Friday, hundreds of people defied an indefinite curfew in Churpora, a village near Srinagar, and attacked the soldiers with stones, a police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. The soldiers fired live ammunition, killing one protester and wounding another three, he said.
However, Ghulam Mohammed, a villager, said the army stopped the protesters and opened fire without any provocation.
Another clash with the army took place in the nearby village of Chichilora, where some teenage marchers attacked the soldiers with stones, the police officer said. At least one person was wounded when soldiers shot at the protesters, he said.
Manzoor Ahmed, a local resident, accused the soldiers of forcibly entering some homes, smashing windows and beating people.
In Shopian, a town south of Srinagar, government forces fired on protesters defying the curfew, killing one person and wounding four others, the police officer said.
Local residents accused government forces of firing on people participating in a peaceful protest rally. However, police said the government forces resorted to firing after protesters attacked them with rocks.
The officer said clashes between police and anti-India demonstrators had also been reported in two other towns — Sopore, northwest of Srinagar, and Awantipura, to the south.
Bashir Ahmed, a schoolteacher in the northern town of Handwara, said the use of the army signaled an escalation in the government's response to the protests.
"Army soldiers don't carry batons and tear gas. They only carry guns. So it's a clear message that army is out to crush us," he said.
Another protester was killed and seven others were injured when police and paramilitary forces fired at protesters who defied a rigid curfew in Pattan, a village north of Srinagar, the police officer said.
During an overnight clash in the town of Sopore, paramilitary troops fired at protesters, wounding seven people, police said.
The round-the-clock curfew in the region entered the fifth day Friday.
With authorities strictly enforcing the curfew, people could not offer traditional Friday prayers in the main mosques in Srinagar and other places. However, police allowed residents to pray in small mosques in various towns and villages.
The decision to call in the army came Wednesday at a meeting of top security officials who were concerned by a separatist plan to march on army and paramilitary camps Sept. 21 to demand soldiers leave the region.
On Thursday, Lt. Col. J.S. Brar, an army spokesman in Srinagar, asked people to ignore the call.
The Indian army is ubiquitous in Kashmir — a Himalayan region also claimed by Pakistan and divided by a heavily militarized frontier — but its operations are usually aimed at combating insurgents.
Since 1989, a violent, separatist insurgency and the ensuing crackdown by Indian forces have killed an estimated 68,000 people.
While that rebellion has been largely suppressed, public opposition to Indian rule remains deep.