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Troops hunt Kashmiri rebels among ruins

The battle was supposed to be over, the militants dead, driven by the Indian army back into the flames of the 14th century mosque that the besieged Kashmiris had set ablaze to cover their escape.

But as reporters climbed through a hillside orchard for a first view of Chrar-e-Sharif, an explosion punched the air, then a second blast, and a third. "Get back," shouted an army spokesman as we ran up the hill to see what was going on. "There are still encounters happening."

Chrar-e-Sharif had been devastated. Not only had the mosque been burnt down but so too had most of the town. Indian authorities said 800 houses and shops were destroyed but it looked more like 1,500 to 2,000 buildings. The town looked like the blackened contents of a pot that someone had spilled down the side of the valley.

A few fires raged stubbornly, even though it seemed there was nothing left to burn. Soldiers prowled through the ashes looking for surviving militants. Clouds from the explosion clung over the town as though they had detached from the thunderstorms in the snowy Pir Panjal range a few miles away. Another explosion thudded, and shots rang out.

"Stay low," Brigadier Mohinder Singh cautioned. "There's some fire-fighting still going on.'' His 1,500 soldiers of the Punjab Rifles were trying to kill or capture the surviving Muslim insurgents who were barricaded inside the Chrar-e-Sharif mosque for several months. It is forbidden to even enter a mosque wearing shoes, let alone carrying weapons, but the insurgents had walked in with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Twenty-three of the 60 besieged militants had been killed by the army during their assault during the last two days. "Some militants are still holed up in there, but we can't rule out the possibility that they've sneaked out," the brigadier said. His men have yet to trap the militants' commander, a long-haired Afghan named Mast Gul.

Indian officials claim the militants, following radio orders from Pakistan, destroyed the mosque and town in order to blame it later on the Indian security forces. The militants' aim, said officials in New Delhi and the Kashmir capital, Srinagar, was to sabotage elections that India wants to hold within the next two months in the hope of finally quelling six years of Muslim unrest in the state. But hatred of India - and equally, fear of the militants - is so pervasive that most Kashmiris are unwilling to vote.

While recapturing Chrar-e-Sharif, Indian troops discovered a small explosives shop where - according to the brigadier - militants made the bombs used to blow up the mosque, The mosque contains the relics of Kashmir's patron saint, a Sufi mystic. The officer denied claims by Kashmiri militants that the fires in Chrar-e-Sharif were caused by troops.

Despite a 48-hour curfew in Kashmir, 300 angry refugees from Chrar-e- Sharif braved the shoot-to-kill orders to tell their story. "Our houses were set on fire by the army," yelled Abdul Kayoom. Next to him, a dozen men beat on their bare chests with grief and rage, while women howled. "We saw the army go into the market and set it ablaze," said Sarida Hassan, a student. "We've lost everything, even the dowry my mother was saving. Now I'll never be able to marry."

The Kashmiris' fury over the burning of the holy shrine spread yesterday throughout this Himalayan valley. Mobs set fire to government buildings and clashed with police in Srinagar and in scores of villages.