Tens of thousands of people march against Indian rule in Kashmir, defying curfew

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims marched Wednesday to a town where seven people were killed over the weekend, defying a curfew in another day of massive protests against Indian rule in the Himalayan region.

Long lines of people carrying green and black protest flags thronged a big prayer ground in Khrew, a town south of Indian-controlled Kashmir's main city Srinagar, even as India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram appealed for an end to the violence.

The government was ready for a dialogue with Kashmiri people, Chidambaram said in a statement in India's Parliament.

The federal government has sent reinforcements to help the beleaguered state administration tackle the increasingly violent crowds who have clashed with paramilitary soldiers. At least 46 people have died over the past seven weeks.

On Wednesday, scores of civilian vehicles fitted with loudspeakers ferried people from neighboring towns and villages to pay homage to those killed in police firing and a blast at a police station in Khrew on Sunday. They chanted slogans "Go India, go back" and "We'll take bullets on our heads but we'll not give up."

Hundreds of government forces stepped back to avoid clashes as the protesters asked them through loudspeakers to withdraw from the streets and not to try to stop the march, said resident Abdul Ahad.

The recent unrest in the Himalayan region is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when protests against New Delhi's rule sparked an armed conflict that has since claimed 68,000 lives, mostly civilians.

Police drove through Srinagar and other towns, warning residents for a second day Wednesday that they would be shot on sight if they defied the round-the-clock curfew imposed in the divided Himalayan region.

But angry residents went out anyway, and there were no reports of fresh clashes between protesters and government forces, officials said.

In one Srinagar neighborhood, where a young man had died in police firing on Tuesday, residents shouted pro-independence slogans and chased away police and paramilitary soldiers, said a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media. The protesters later burned a government jeep.

In another neighborhood, thousands of people, including dozens of wailing women, took to the streets after a young man from their neighborhood died in hospital from injuries he sustained in police gunfire on July 30.

In the southern town of Shopian, protesters set two government buildings and a jeep on fire, police said. Hundreds also came out in the small towns of Sopore and Kupwara.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, an 82-year-old separatist leader, appealed to protesters not to damage public property. He urged them to continue protests against Indian rule, but peacefully.

"We've only one demand that India should quit Kashmir," he told reporters.

The federal government has sent nearly 2,000 additional paramilitary soldiers to Kashmir, paramilitary spokesman Prabhakar Tripathi said.

Another 300 troops of the Rapid Action Force, specially trained to tackle violent mobs, were also on their way to Kashmir, he said.

The decision to send more security forces to stamp out the protests has not gone down well with Kashmiris. They accused New Delhi of adding to the heavy security presence in Kashmir while not reaching out for a political dialogue.

"India has declared war on the people of Kashmir," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a key separatist leader who has been under house arrest for nearly a month now.

"Rather than reaching out to people and trying to sort out their genuine political demands, India is further militarizing this place by sending more troops," Farooq said Wednesday.

Chidambaram said the government had initiated a "quiet dialogue with key political groups and individuals" in 2009. But it was interrupted by an attempt on the life of an interlocutor, Fazal Haq Qureshi, by an assailant who fled after the attack.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan but claimed by both. Separatist politicians and militants in Kashmir reject Indian sovereignty over the region and want to carve out a separate homeland or merge with Pakistan.