Muslims demand independent Kashmir as Indian police kill 13

Tension rises as thousands gather for funeral of separatist leader

Indian Kashmir has been convulsed by the biggest pro-independence rallies for two decades, with tensions between Muslims and Hindus spilling over into violence that has so far claimed 13 lives and left more than 100 people injured.

The deaths were a result of Indian police and troops firing on Muslim protesters who were defying a curfew imposed by the authorities following the killing of a high-profile separatist leader. In some of the worst violence in the region in recent years, there were at least a dozen shooting incidents as large numbers of Muslims ignored the curfew and took to the streets.

In Srinagar last night up to 10,000 people defied the curfew to bury the separatist leader, Sheikh Abdul Aziz, whose body had been taken to the city's main mosque.

Mr Aziz, a senior figure within the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of more than two dozen moderate religious and social groups campaigning for independence for Kashmir, was killed on Monday along with four other people when police fired into a crowd of Muslims protesting against what they said was a Hindu blockade of the road linking the Kashmir Valley to the rest of India. The protesters, up to 100,000 strong, were trying to march to the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir when the shootings took place.

The deaths are the latest violent twist in a summer of increasing tension in Kashmir that was initially sparked by a row over land being donated to a Hindu shrine. In June, faced by protests from Muslims, the state government reversed the decision it had taken to donate 99 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath shrine, a site of pilgrimage that draws thousands of Hindus a year from across India. In turn, the decision to reverse the donation angered Hindus in the state. Since then, tensions between the two communities have worsened, amid evidence that local politicians have sought to use the row to further their own interests.

As a result, not only have there been the largest demonstrations for independence in the past 20 years, but trade between the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and the Hindu-dominated region around the city of Jammu, has been drastically curtailed. Muslims say the government is behind a blockade of a 185-mile link road that is leaving many communities low on food and medicine. They also complain that hundreds of truckloads of Kashmiri fruit are going to waste because they cannot be delivered and are rotting in the heat. The situation is so bad that producers are now demanding to be allowed to export their crops across the border to Pakistan.

"The first thing is that the whole event is very undesirable in terms of both the domestic situation in Jammu and Kashmir and its linkage with the larger bilateral peace process [between India and Pakistan]," C Uday Bhaskar, a strategic analyst, told Reuters. "I think this will have a bad impact and considering that Pakistan is going through bad turmoil now, the overall impact on the peace process will not be very positive."

Indian-administered Kashmir has long been a flashpoint for religious violence and an estimated 68,000 people have been killed in the past two decades as a multitude of militant groups have fought either for independence or a merger with Pakistan. But in the past couple of years a fragile peace had descended upon the state, to the extent that Indian authorities had begun once again to promote Kashmir as a tourist destination

After Sheikh Aziz was killed in Chehel, about 30 miles from the border between the two portions of Kashmir, the Indian authorities imposed the curfew.

At the burial last night of Mr Aziz and the four other people killed with him, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of Hurriyat and the most powerful separatist leader in Kashmir, told a huge crowd of mourners: "Sheikh Aziz's death is big loss to the Kashmir nation, we will take his mission to its logical end." Another leader of the organisation, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, also attended the funeral, defying both the curfew and house arrest.

As the crowd chanted for independence, Mr Farooq added: "Our struggle for complete independence from India will continue. No power on earth can deter us from achieving this."

Conflicts at the Hindu Shri Amarnath shrine

The Shri Amarnath shrine is located inside a remote mountain cave about 80 miles from Srinagar. The holy site is 12,000ft (3,658m) above sea level and contains a large, phallus-shaped icicle said to represent Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth.

Thousands of Hindu pilgrims come each year to pray at the shrine, one of the religion's most important sites, and the number is rising. There was concern last year that the high number of visitors and the impact of global warming were causing the icicle to melt at a faster rate than usual.

The government of Kashmir had intended to hand over about 100 acres of state land to the shrine board so that it could build facilities for the pilgrims, who walk more than 10 miles to worship before the representation of the deity. The government reversed the decision but said it would provide those facilities instead.

The annual pilgrimage to the site, said to be more than 5,000 years old, has been controversial. Many Muslims argue that Indian officials use the 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. India denies the claim, saying it has never sought to promote Hindu migration to Jammu and Kashmir state, as it is formally known.

While the site is mentioned in ancient texts, it was lost for hundreds of years. Tradition has it that it was rediscovered about 150 years ago, somewhat ironically, by a Muslim shepherd who lost his sheep and found they had wandered into the cave.

Key events

1989: Armed resistance breaks out in Kashmir, with some groups demanding it joins Pakistan, while others call for independence.

1997: As India and Pakistan both celebrate 50 years of independence, the countries hold a series of diplomatic meetings.

1998: Stakes are raised as India's underground nuclear tests are followed by similar tests by Pakistan.

1999: Fighting breaks out as India launches air strikes against Pakistan-backed troops who enter Indian Kashmir.

2001: An attack by militants on the Kashmiri assembly in Srinagar – the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir – kills 38. Delhi parliament is attacked and 14 are killed, including attackers. India blames Kashmiri militants backed by Pakistan.

2004: Peace initiative launched.

2008: With peace talks ongoing, more than 60 people are killed in a suicide bomb attack at the Indian embassy in Kabul. India, the US and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of involvement, which it denies.

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