5 killed as Indian leaders debate measures to end violence in disputed Kashmir region

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Indian police opened fire Wednesday on Muslim demonstrators in a town near Kashmir, killing four people and wounding 30 as leaders of India's main political parties debated how to end months of separatist protests in the region.

In another clash, one protester was killed and two were wounded when government forces used live ammunition in Sopore, a town northwest of Indian Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, a police officer said.

Government soldiers fired when the protesters attacked them with stones while they were returning to their barracks, the officer said on condition of anonymity.

The new clashes came two days after 18 protesters and a police officer were killed in street battles — the worst outbreak of violence in Kashmir in months of anti-India unrest this year.

In response to those protests, which were exacerbated by reports of a Quran desecration in the United States, authorities slapped a round-the-clock curfew across Indian-controlled Kashmir and threatened to shoot violators on sight.

The Quran issue resurfaced Wednesday, when thousands of protesters assembled close to a Christian school in the town of Mendhar, 115 miles (180 kilometers) southwest of Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's main city, chanting "Down with Quran desecrators" and "We want freedom."

Police fired tear gas and swung batons as the protesters tried to enter the school and used live ammunition when the crowd refused to disperse, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters. At least four protesters were killed and 30 others wounded, six of them critically, he said.

Angered by the deaths, hundreds of people arrived from neighboring villages and torched a court complex, a post office, a police headquarters and other government buildings, the officer said.

Mendhar, a predominantly Muslim town in the Jammu region next to Kashmir, was not under curfew when the protest broke out Wednesday.

Meanwhile, protesters defying the curfew in Srinagar were met with tear gas, and separatists burned two government vehicles in the southern town of Shopian, the officer said.

The recent eruption of violence has left the government searching for a new strategy for dealing with the protests, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gathered the nation's top political leaders Wednesday to appeal for ideas.

Speaking at the start of the meeting, Singh accused separatist groups of orchestrating some of the violent protests. He appealed for calm in the region and said the government was willing to talk to any group that did not espouse violence.

"I have said this earlier and I say it again: The only path for lasting peace and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir is that of dialogue and discussion," he said.

The meeting ended with an agreement to send a delegation to Kashmir to hear opinions from all sides, according to a statement released afterward.

Separatist leaders dismissed the gathering as a public relations ploy.

"The meeting is a cosmetic and halfhearted measure," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

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, and the region remains heavily militarized with hundreds of thousands of troops, checkpoints along main roads, and harsh emergency laws still in force, creating further friction with the restive population.

Thousands of mainly Muslim protesters have taken to the streets over the past three summers, stoning troops and demanding independence from Hindu-dominated India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Kashmir is divided between the neighboring countries and both lay claim to all of it.

This summer, the violence has claimed nearly 90 lives.

The meeting in New Delhi also discussed whether to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in force in Indian-held Kashmir since 1990, said Mehbooba Mufti, the leader of the opposition People's Democratic Party in Kashmir.

Under the law, army officers can search homes and make arrests without warrants, can shoot at anyone suspected of being a separatist and can blow up a building or a home on suspicion insurgents are using it.

Kashmiri officials, hoping to regain some credibility with their people that has been lost amid the crackdown, have pressed for the lifting of the special powers act.

However, some Cabinet ministers and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party oppose even a partial lifting of the law, saying it would lead to more violence.

Human rights activists accuse government forces in Kashmir of routinely misusing their power and killing civilians in staged confrontations for promotions and rewards.

In April, soldiers claimed a reward for killing three men they said were Pakistani militants who had crossed into India. After relatives of the men complained, a police investigation accused the soldiers of snatching three civilians, taking them to the border, killing them and pretending they were infiltrating militants.

The army suspended two officers in that case, a rare instance of action taken against security officials accused of abuses.

Even if the government agrees to lift the restrictions on Kashmir, it would not necessarily appease separatist leaders. Nor would it necessarily have an impact on life in Srinagar or other major towns that are patrolled by police and paramilitary forces not covered by the special powers act.


Associated Press Writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.