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Eight killed in Kashmir gunbattle

Five suspected insurgents and three Indian soldiers died in a fierce gunbattle in divided Kashmir when the militants tried to cross over from Pakistan into the Indian-controlled portion, an army officer said today.

Tension has been rising in Kashmir as government forces have allegedly killed at least eight other people over the past two weeks during protests demanding the region's independence from India.

Thousands of police in riot gear patrolled the main city, Srinagar, today and shops, businesses and government offices were shut.

Police and paramilitary soldiers drove through neighbourhoods warning people to stay indoors and not participate in pro-independence protests, said Afaq Wani, a Srinagar resident. He said it was almost a curfew-like situation.

Sajad Ahmed, a local police officer, said that no curfew has been imposed but that the state government has banned the assembly in public of more than five people.

Troops also erected steel barricades and laid razor wire across main roads to prevent public gatherings.

"We're imposing restrictions to avoid clashes," Mr Ahmed said.

Similar restrictions were also imposed in several other towns in the region. In the violence-torn town of Sopore, 35 miles north-west of Srinagar, an indefinite curfew was in force for the fifth consecutive day.

The gunbattle near the India-Pakistan frontier broke out yesterday when a group of suspected militants infiltrated into Indian territory in the Nowgam sector, Colonel Vineet Sood, an army spokesman, said today.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir and, since 1989, Muslim militants have fought in Indian-controlled Kashmir for independence or merger with Pakistan.

India accuses Pakistan of funding and training militants in the Pakistani-held portion of Kashmir and helping them slip over to the Indian side to fight. Islamabad denies the charge.

More than 68,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict since 1989.