Kashmir tries to defuse shrine riots by revoking deal

Officials in Indian-administered Kashmir have stepped in to try to defuse a row over the donation of government land to a Hindu shrine which triggered the biggest protests in the area for almost two decades.

The state government said it would revoke its decision to hand over almost 100 acres to build facilities for the hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit the Shri Amarnath shrine in the predominantly Muslim state.

It hopes the move will calm demonstrations that have raged across Kashmir for the past fortnight, leaving at least five people dead and hundreds injured.

However, while Muslims were pleased by the decision to cancel the donation, the about-face infuriated Hindus. Yesterday, police fired live ammunition at Hindu demonstrators in the city of Jammu, wounding at least three people.

Meanwhile, in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, thousands of Muslim protesters marched to a mosque and chanted anti-Indian slogans. Police had tried to pre-empt the march by detaining five separatist leaders earlier in the day but they failed to prevent the rally from bringing the city to a standstill for a second consecutive day.

"A formal decision against alloting land to the trust was taken today," said Jugal Kishore, a Kashmiri state minister. "Facilities for the pilgrims visiting the shrine will be handled by the state government. The people of the state did not want the land to be given to the trust."

Riots began a fortnight ago when the government said it would give the forest land to the board which oversees the Shri Amarnath shrine. The holy site, about 80 miles from Srinagar, is set in a Himalayan cave 12,000ft above sea level and contains a large, phallus-shaped icicle said to represent Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth.

It is one of India's most important shrines, visited by huge numbers of pilgrims. There was concern last winter that the high number of visitors and perhaps global warming were causing the icicle to melt earlier than usual.

The government of Kashmir had intended to hand over state land to the shrine board so that it could build facilities for the pilgrims, who walk more than 10 miles. Now the government will provide those facilities.

The annual pilgrimage has always been controversial. Many Muslims argue that Indian officials use the religious event, which lasts for two months, as a political statement to bolster their claim over the Himalayan region, which is divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both. The Indian government denies the claim, saying it has never sought to promote Hindu migration to Jammu and Kashmir state, as it is formally known.

Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, one of the five separatist leaders who was placed under house arrest yesterday, said police were prohibiting people's right to demonstrate. Mr Farooq, who heads the moderate wing of a separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said: "The government is trying to block people from holding protests."

Militant groups have been fighting for decades for independence for Kashmir or else its merger with Pakistan. About 68,000 people have died in the conflict.