Indian Kashmir's top official orders release of policeman who hurled shoe

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Indian-controlled Kashmir's top elected official has pardoned an off-duty police officer who hurled a shoe at him during India's independence day ceremony — an insulting act reportedly lauded by thousands of Kashmiris.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah directed officials to release Abdul Ahad Jan from prison after meeting the policeman on Tuesday, a government statement said.

"The Holy month of Ramadan teaches us to be compassionate and to forgive everyone," Abdullah said. The Muslim month of fasting began on Aug. 12.

Jan was in a high-security gallery of top officials and ministers when he hurled the shoe during the ceremony at a soccer stadium in Srinagar on Sunday. He also threw a black flag toward Abdullah while shouting, "We want freedom." Neither item hit Abdullah.

Jan was immediately arrested and authorities later said he was mentally unstable and had been suspended from work in May.

Top officials called the act a major security breach and suspended 15 police officials, including four officers, for lax security that allowed the officer to enter the stadium.

Thousands of people reportedly shouted pro-independence slogans in a show of support outside Jan's house in his native village after the incident and demanded his unconditional release.

The public reaction to the stunt underscored the continuing anti-India sentiment in the predominantly Muslim region, which has been rocked by unrest since June. At least 59 people have died in the violence.

A top separatist leader dismissed Abdullah's action as a "drama."

"The puppet chief minister is invoking compassion and forgiveness in this (fasting) month and has suspended 15 officials for the shoe throwing incident," said Masarat Alam in a statement.

"Have they suspended anyone for murders in Ramadan alone?" he asked, referring to the killing of Kashmiri Muslims by government forces during street protests.

The Himalayan region is divided between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, but claimed in full by both. Most people in Kashmir favor independence from India or a merger with Pakistan.

The recent unrest in Indian Kashmir is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when protests against New Delhi's rule sparked an armed conflict that has so far killed more than 68,000 people, mostly civilians.

Separatists have called for more protests and strikes during Ramadan, and the government has responded by imposing curfews, effectively shutting down the disputed region.

On Wednesday, thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers patrolled Srinagar and other major towns, enforcing a strict curfew, but protesters took to the streets anyway.

Residents staged protest marches across much of Kashmir and chanted "Go India! Go back" and "We want freedom."

Most protests were peaceful, but in some places clashes broke out after security forces tried to block the marchers by firing warning shots and tear gas, said a police officer on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak with media.

The protesters hurled rocks and bricks at government forces, he said.

At least 13 people were injured in the clashes, police said.