Peaceful end to Kashmir siege boosts PM

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KASHMIRI militants trapped inside a mosque for 32 days by the Indian army surrendered yesterday without firing a shot.

More than 30 militants and their 35 hostages, including several women and children, began trickling out of the Hazrat Bal shrine shortly after 2am in three groups. Once the militants had handed over their arsenal of assault rifles, a machine-gun, hand-grenades and a rocket-launcher, the army rushed Muslim clergymen to the mosque to ensure that no damage had occurred to a holy relic - a hair of the Prophet Mohamed's beard.

The Kashmiri separatists had threatened to blow up the shrine and with it the prophet's hair. However, the clergymen refused to examine the relic until 8,000 troops are withdrawn from the mosque, beside Dal lake, and Muslim faithful are allowed back in for prayers. 'We want some prominent political, religious and social leaders to identify the holy relic,' said a spokesman from the Muslim Auquaf Trust. Security forces used tear-gas and clubs to disperse 250 demonstrators trying to enter the Hazrat Bal shrine.

The Indian Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, said: 'There has been no deal with the militants who have surrendered voluntarily. The law will now take its course.' All those trapped inside the mosque were taken away for interrogation, and the state governor, K V Krishna Rao, said the militants would face 'full justice'.

The peaceful end to the long mosque siege is expected to boost the chances of Mr Rao's beleaguered Congress (I) Party in by-elections underway in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram. During the election campaign, Congress' leading adversary, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, had lambasted Mr Rao for being too soft on the Kashmiri Muslim separatists.

In Delhi, top security officers said the militants gave up after failing to muster support to form a suicide squad for a last desperate attempt to break through the cordon around the mosque. However, this report was denied by army sources in Srinagar. India accuses Pakistan of stirring up the three- year-old Kashmiri revolt.

The Hazrat Bal stand-off was a potential powder keg. Had the Indian security forces, who are mainly Hindus, stormed the mosque, it might easily have caused Muslims all across India to riot. India has been trying to shrug off persistent claims of atrocities committed by security forces, and the mosque siege riveted international attention once again on Kashmir. India was also rattled by remarks made by a senior US State Department official, Robin Raphel, which referred to Kashmir as a disputed territory rather than a part of India.

The siege began on 16 October when Indian security forces received a tip-off that Muslim militants were plotting to tamper with the relic of the prophet, one small hair kept inside a gold-tipped phial. When it went missing for a week in 1963, there were riots in India and Pakistan until it was recovered. This time Indian security forces swiftly cordoned off the mosque, trapping the armed militants and a crowd of worshippers inside.

The army had originally intended to starve out the militants, but after a week, civilian negotiators persuaded the security forces to let in food. While the mosque crisis deepened, the Himalayan valley of Kashmir erupted in clashes between the locals and the Indian security forces. Strikes were called by the militants, and the army kept large parts of the disputed north-western state under tight curfew. At the height of the tension, more than 45 people were shot dead by security forces on 22 October in Bijbehara village.

To help in talks, the Indian authorities roped in clergymen, pro-militant politicians, and even the fathers of two dead Kashmiri rebels. The promise of a settlement was reached on 3 November, but that fell to pieces when the chief government negotiator was seriously injured in a road accident.

The militants' hold over their captives began to be eroded over the weekend, when two people escaped from the mosque, followed shortly after by another 15.

(Photograph omitted)