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Police in Kashmir kill 18 at Koran-burning protest

The long-troubled state of Kashmir suffered one of its bloodiest days when at least 18 people were killed and more than a hundred injured as security forces opened fire on protesters in confrontations across the valley.

As politicians in Delhi debated whether to ease a bitterly controversial law that provides effective immunity to troops, Indian forces again responded to widespread demonstrations with deadly force.

The protests, which saw tens of thousands of people ignore a curfew and take to the streets, were at least partly in anger over reports that copies of the Koran had been burnt in the US. A police officer also lost his life.

More than 80 people have been killed by the security forces since June, when protesters stepped up their demands for autonomy for Kashmir and for troops and police to be held accountable for their actions. Most of those killed and wounded have been teenagers and young men, though other people have also been caught up in the violence. Campaigners have demanded that the authorities use non-lethal methods for countering the crowds.

But despite claims by the state and central authorities that such techniques are being introduced, police continue to respond to many incidents with deadly force. In the village of Tangmarg, 25 miles north-west of Srinagar, troops fired on thousands of rock-throwing demonstrators, killing five and wounding at least 50 others. In the western town of Budgam, troops tried to disperse demonstrators with tear gas and baton charges but began firing into the crowd after protesters attacked a police station and the government forces with rocks, police said. At least four people including a young woman were killed and at least 30 others were wounded, some critically. Protesters were killed in at least three other towns.

Human rights groups yesterday called on both demonstrators and the authorities to take action to ease the situation. "The anger in Kashmir has been brewing because of injustice," said Meenakshi Ganguly, a regional spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. "What is needed now is a genuine commitment from the government to address all allegations of human rights violations, but the separatist leaders too must call for an immediate end to these violent attacks."

Last night, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said the central government was seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. "We are willing to talk to every person or group which abjures violence, within the framework of our constitution," he said.

Yet at the same time, it emerged no agreement had been reached on the possibility of lifting the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a draconian piece of legislation in operation in Kashmir and parts of north-east India which gives sweeping powers to the security forces.

While many analysts have called for the law to be removed, military commanders say it provides their forces with crucial leverage.

While separatists seeking autonomy from India had planned a new round of demonstrations following the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this weekend, the anger in Kashmir had been exacerbated by reports on the Iranian state-run channel Press TV that copies of the Koran had been desecrated over the weekend in the US. While a Florida pastor called off his plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Iranian channel showed footage of a man destroying a copy of the Muslim holy book in Tennessee. The broadcasts were eventually blocked at the demand of Kashmiri authorities.