Rebel threat to raze mosque in Kashmir: Tense stand-off as Indian security forces surround Muslim militants

ARMED Muslim rebels cornered inside Kashmir's holiest mosque threatened to blow it up yesterday unless Indian troops lifted their two-day siege. Also trapped inside the Hazrat Bal mosque are 200 men and women, but it is not clear whether they are hostages or supporters of the secessionists, who are fighting against Indian rule in the northern state of Kashmir.

A ceasefire held throughout yesterday as two masked Kashmiri separatists met senior Indian negotiators in the shrine's rose garden and gave their demands: the withdrawal of 500 Indian soldiers encircling the mosque and the end to a 24-hour curfew that has blanketed most of Kashmir valley. The Kashmiri separatists also want thousands of prayer-goers to be allowed to visit Hazrat Bal mosque, enabling the militants to mingle with them and avoid capture.

The shrine contains a holy relic - a single hair belonging to the Prophet Mohamed - and if Indian soldiers were to attack the mosque, it would provoke considerable outrage. India's 120 million Muslims would be angered, as would many Islamic governments who often protest against the mainly Hindu army's often brutal tactics in Kashmir - India's only predominately Muslim state. Neighbouring Pakistan condemend the mosque siege as a 'wanton sacrilege'.

Authorities had not responded to the militants' demands by late yesterday. A police chief, A K Suri, said: 'We are doing everything we can to preserve the sanctity of the holy relic. We have no intention of storming the shrine.' The rebels said they would let in Muslim clergymen to see the Prophet's hair had not been harmed.

But the security forces seemed braced for a battle. After evacuating more than 3,000 Kashmiris from nearby houses and shops, army snipers took up positions on rooftops and in windows overlooking the mosque. Water and electricity to the mosque were cut off.

There is some confusion over the insurgents' strength. Police claimed that between 30 and 100 militants, armed with grenades and semi- automatic rifles, were barricaded inside the mosque. But the militants told the two Indian envoys that they were a band of only eight; the others inside, they said, were all innocent Muslims who had been attending prayer on Friday when the militants burst in. The rebels also claimed to have wired a large quantity of explosives inside the mosque.

More than 25 militants had tried to flee Hazrat Bal, a 17th-century mosque beside Dal lake, earlier yesterday but were caught by the Indian army and arrested, according to one Indian news agency.

The rebels' takeover over of the mosque is one of the most disastrous events to confront the authorities since a growing insurrection by Muslim militants flared up in Kashmir nearly three years ago. More than 2,500 Kashmiris have been killed in the unrest.

Despite a heavy army curfew, four demonstrations broke out in Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital. The protesters were dispersed by police baton charges. In the western side of Kashmir valley, 13 Kashmiris and one Indian soldier were killed in shootouts.

In Delhi, the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, called an emergency cabinet meeting and sent a senior adviser to Srinagar yesterday to help resolve the crisis. When the former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1984 ordered troops to dislodge Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, it led to a bloodbath and to her assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

The right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition group, yesterday suggested that Pakistan was behind the mosque's capture. A BJP spokesman, K L Sharma, said: 'It is a deep-rooted conspiracy to create communal confrontation.' India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the Kashmiri guerrillas.

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