Hazratbal, Kashmir's holiest shrine, is famous for possessing a strand of the Prophet Muhammad's hair. But in recent times, this shining white marble mosque has become the epicentre of tension between Kashmiri Muslims and Indian security forces.
To avoid inflaming Muslim sentiments, the mosque has been a "no-go" area for Indian security forces. But when a gang of Kashmir militants swaggered into Hazratbal on Sunday with their weapons, they were challenged by police. A gun battle ensued and three police were killed, together with nine militants.
One of the dead militants was Bashrat Raza, described as "commander-in- chief" of the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, one of many Muslim militant factions opposed to Indian rule in the Himalayan state.
The surviving insurgents, as many as 25, dragged the corpses of their fellow militants inside the mosque precinct and then barricaded themselves in for a long siege. It is not the first time that militants have sheltered in Hazratbal. In October 1993, a group held hostages inside the mosque in a stand-off with the army that lasted 33 days. That ended peacefully, with the surrender of the militants, and the Prophet's hair was left unharmed.
Security forces responded swiftly this time. The mosque, beside Dal lake, outside Srinagar, was immediately ringed by over 2,000 police and paramilitary. Civilians and journalists were banned from the area. The streets emptied after news of the siege spread, but it was impossible to tell if it was because of the insurgents' strike call or the government curfew.
The siege is likely to foul efforts by Indian authorities to secure the release of two Britons - Keith Mangan, originally from Middlesbrough, and Paul Wells, a Nottingham student - an American and a German who have been held hostage by Islamic extremists since last July. Police and Kashmir militant sources had claimed that talks between negotiators and the militants of al-Faran had reached a favourable stage and that the captives' release was expected "within several weeks".
Al Faran and the militants inside Hazratbal have no direct links, but it is doubtful that al-Faran would free its prisoners while Indian security forces were besieging the holy shrine.
By nightfall, the militants had refused the authorities' demands that they hand over their weapons and surrender. Over the mosque's public address system they shouted "freedom for Kashmir". Relatives of the gun battle victims managed to retrieve three bodies from the mosque courtyard.
The authorities gave the militants two days to surrender or face stiff punishment. A Kashmir government statement said anyone desecrating a religious place after Wednesday "will not be shown any leniency".
The siege of Hazratbal is a setback to plans by the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, to hold parliamentary elections in Kashmir. So far, all the principal Muslim militant groups have vowed to boycott the polls. With the election campaign gathering heat elsewhere in India, the powerful right-wing Hindu party is likely to attack Mr Rao for being too soft on the Kashmiri militants. But if the militants refuse to surrender, and troops are forced to storm the mosque, India would lose the few Kashmiris still on its side.
When the Prophet's hair was misplaced back in 1964, it sparked riots that left 200 dead. The destruction of Hazratbal could set off shock waves that stun the Islamic world.
t (New Delhi) - Two leading socialist parties have thrown down a stiff challenge to Mr Rao's ruling Congress Party by forming an alliance to fight the general election in India's most populous state.
The Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party (SP) set aside personality differences to contest Uttar Pradesh state's 85 parliamentary seats. It is the largest number of seats in any one state and the alliance forms what many believe could be the backbone of a left-wing alliance.
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