Troops deployed in Kashmir to tackle protests by separatists

Thousands of police and paramilitary troops deployed across Indian Kashmir yesterday to head off planned protests.

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SRINAGAR // Thousands of police and paramilitary troops in riot gear deployed across Indian Kashmir yesterday to head off planned protests by Muslim separatists against the celebration of the anniversary of the day Indian troops took control of the Himalayan region in 1947. Police put up barricades and blocked roads leading to the offices of United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) along Srinagar's posh Gupkar avenue.

Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, the chief Muslim cleric and leader of the separatist Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference alliance, had said he would lead a protest to the UNMOGIP to demand independence for the region from India. He was placed under house arrest earlier in the day in what police officials said was a preventive measure. The UNMOGIP was deployed in the disputed region in Jan 1949 to supervise a ceasefire between India and Pakistan, who have since fought two wars - at least one of which has been over Kashmir.

Kashmiris often show up at the Srinagar headquarters of the UNMOGIP to vent their anger on New Delhi's rule. The region is split between India and Pakistan but claimed in its entirety by both. Separatist groups are calling either for independence or merger with Muslim Pakistan. India has said it sent troops to Srinagar on Oct 27 1947 at the request of Hari Singh, Kashmir's then Hindu maharaja, to fight Pakistan tribal raiders who were against his signing of an accession agreement to join India, following the partition of the subcontinent.

However, Islamabad and Kashmiri separatists dispute New Delhi's claim and say the maharaja was coerced into accession with India and question it on "ethical" and "legal" grounds. Security forces were also out en masse in Lal Chowk, where Kashmiri lawyers had planned to form a human chain to protest against the presence of Indian troops in the region there. Police raided the houses of prominent lawyers overnight and placed senior functionaries of the Kashmir bar council under house arrest to prevent them from protesting in Lal Chowk. Mr Farooq said it was ridiculous that even a human chain was seen by India as a threat.

"This was supposed to be a symbolic protest reminding the world that India has militarily occupied Kashmir," he said in a statement issued on his behalf by the Hurriyat Conference. While yesterday's strike called by a co-ordination committee set up by separatists has crippled life in the Kashmir valley, and some predominantly Muslim parts of the state's Jammu region, the Indian army went ahead with a series of events to celebrate the day with "traditional reverence and solemnity".

Several civil and military dignitaries paid tributes to the "brave martyrs" who fought tribal raiders in 1947-48, an Indian army spokesman said. "The Indian army celebrates October 27 each year as Infantry Day. On this historic day, 61 years ago, troops of 1 SIKH landed at the Srinagar airfield and protected the capital city from falling into the hands of Kabaili [tribal] infiltrators," he said. Speaking at one such function, Lt Gen Mukesh Sabarwal, the commander of Srinagar-based 15 Corps, said there had been a considerable drop in the number of attempts by militants crossing the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border separating India and Pakistan-ruled Kashmir.

"The sustained efforts of army and other forces deployed along the LoC have been fruitful and infiltration attempts have fallen. Despite desperate efforts by Pakistan to pump in militants to this side of the de facto border, our troops have made every effort a failure," he said. Yesterday, the army killed three militants who were attempting to cross the border in Kupwara district, he said. Another six militants belonging to Hizb ul Mujahideen, a local separatist group, were shot dead during a gun battle in eastern Kishtwar district, officials said.

Meanwhile, huge curfew-defying crowds held protests in Baramulla, a town 58km north-west of Srinagar, where the previous day a university student was killed and four were wounded when police fired on a crowd hurling stones at them. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to suppress the protest, witnesses said. Baramulla, the gateway to Kashmir valley from the west, was the scene of widespread killings and destruction during the first Kashmir war of 1947-48.

* The National