Throughout Srinagar, the state capital, where Indian security forces also killed seven protesters, thousands of Kashmiris yesterday defied a curfew and tried marching to a holy Muslim shrine where armed separatists and more than 150 worshippers have endured an eight-day siege by Indian troops.
The Kashmiri protesters, led by Muslim clergymen and sometimes by women, failed to reach the besieged Hazarat Bal mosque, beside a lake seven miles outside Srinagar, that is surrounded by more than 14,000 heavily armed soldiers.
Twenty-two people were killed when paramilitary Border Security Force troops opened fire to break up a 30,000-strong demonstration in the town of Bejibhera, 25 miles south of Srinagar. The super intendent of police, Mohammed Amin, confirmed 15 deaths, but doctors at Bijbihar's Bejibhera's main hospital said that 22 people had died and more than 100 others were injured, including 20 who were in a serious condition.
Earlier in Srinagar, S Padmab han, the army corps commander in Srinagar, said: 'I have told my troops not to shoot, even if they are being shot at. Do you know how hard an order that is to give?'
But the same orders were not imposed on the ill-disciplined Indian paramilitary forces, whose use of torture and execution has embittered a majority of Kashmiri Muslims against Indian rule. I saw them fire tear-gas shells at point-blank range down a dirty alley where women and children stood shouting, 'freedom, freedom'. And in at least two neighbourhoods of Srinagar, witnesses saw the paramilitary forces shoot in the crowds of demonstrators trying to reach the Hazarat Bal shrine.
The Indian authorities insist that it is only a small group of Muslim militants, armed and paid by the enemy neighbour Pakistan, who are stirring up the separatist unrest in Kashmir. But yesterday, despite a dawn to dusk curfew, tens of thousands of Kashmiris left their homes in this ancient city of canals and bridges and flocked towards the shrine. Their aim was to convince the army to lift its blockade and let the Kashmiri militants trapped inside walk free.
The Kashmiri protesters failed in their objective. But the Indian authorities showed that their domination of Kashmir after three years of unrest, can only be maintained by extreme force. The biggest procession was led by Mr Ansari, a prominent Kashmiri who advocates self- rule for the state. It started in the heart of Srinagar. Thousands swarmed from their homes, where they have been confined for several days under military curfew, and joined him.
As the marchers grew in number, they were able to flood past the military barricades, through clouds of tear-gas, until they reached the Kanwari Chowk market square. It was there that the paramilitary forces fired on them. The first shots came from an automatic rifle mounted on an assault vehicle, spraying into the crowd. Then paramilitary forces opened a volley of gunfire. Mr Ansari, an eldery man, was critically injured, police said.
Throughout the Kashmir valley, violence flared. Police said more than 200 people were injured in the shooting and tear-gassing by security forces. Even though yesterday was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, many mosques remained locked and the congregations instead marched in solidarity with those trapped inside the Hazarat Bal shrine.