50 killed in Kashmiri fighting: Urgent inquiry ordered into upsurge of violence

SRINAGAR - The government in Indian-ruled Kashmir has ordered an inquiry into an upsurge of violence in which about 50 people were killed at the weekend.

A crowd of 5,000, watched by hundreds of paramilitary police, shouted anti-Indian slogans yesterday in Lal Chowk square, in the Jammu and Kashmir state's summer capital, Srinagar. The demonstration was peaceful, and the rest of the city was largely deserted as residents observed a general strike called by militant supporters of Pakistan, which controls the remaining one-third of Kashmir.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people gathered in the square to protest against the alleged killing of around 20 militants in custody over the past two weeks. The crowd burnt down a temporary paramilitary police barracks, and militants exchanged fire with security forces for several hours. A police spokesman said 36 people, 21 of them militants, had been killed in and around Srinagar over the past two days.

Unofficial sources put the death toll at 50, including 10 alleged militants who drowned on Saturday when security forces raked their boat with fire on the Jhelum river.

The Jammu and Kashmir Governor, Krishna Rao, a former Indian army commander, met angry residents in the square on Saturday. They pleaded with him to investigate the alleged deaths in custody and accused paramilitary police of dousing shops with petrol and setting them on fire after their barracks were set ablaze. At least 200 shops and 50 homes were gutted by fires, a state government spokesman said.

Mr Rao's office, late on Saturday, issued a statement ordering a full inquiry into the incidents. The Governor had said shortly after taking office last month that he would not tolerate custodial killings or harassment of innocent civilians - charges frequently levelled at the tens of thousands of security forces in the Kashmir Valley.

Around 11,500 people have died since tensions in India's only Muslim-dominated state erupted into open revolt in January 1990. Muslims in the country form a minority of around 10 per cent; the vast majority of the population - around 80 per cent - is Hindu.

India has fought two wars with Pakistan over Kashmir. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of arming and training Kashmiri militants but Pakistan says it provides only political and diplomatic support.

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