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Kashmir separatists held ahead of rally

Srinagar, August 25, 2008

Indian police detained two Muslim separatist leaders in Kashmir ahead of a major independence rally on Monday, as New Delhi confronts the biggest protests in two decades in the disputed Himalayan region.

Police said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the chairman of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference and hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani were detained in overnight raids in summer capital Srinagar.

"Both have been detained for precautionary measures," a senior police official, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Separatists have said they will defy curfew on Monday to hold a pro-independence rally in Lal Chowk in the heart of Srinagar, raising fears of more deaths and clashes which have galvanised anti-India protests this month.

"The people of Kashmir were ready to defy the curfew and carry out the march to protest against Indian occupation," a statement of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference said.

One person was killed and dozens were injured on Sunday when police fired bullets, tear gas and used batons to disperse thousands of pro-independence protesters defying a curfew.

Police have killed at least 24 Muslim protesters and more than 500 have been injured in clashes in two weeks of demonstrations in Kashmir Valley.

The crisis has strained relations between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full but rule it in parts. It has also raised fears of communal tension in the state, split between the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the Muslim Kashmir Valley.

A dispute over land for Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir snowballed into full-scale rallies this month, boosting separatists who want India's only Muslim-majority region to secede.

The recent crisis began after the state government promised to give forest land to a trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged.

The government then rescinded its decision, which in turn angered Hindus in Jammu, the winter capital of the region.

The conflict has had little impact on national politics, with a consensus in India that Kashmir should stay part of the country, no matter what.

With a general election approaching early next year, political analysts say there is little chance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh giving any concessions to the protesters, with the government hoping that the demonstrations will peter out.

While the protests are huge, the level of violence that has been seen recently in Kashmir pales when compared with the death toll of the past two decades.

In Kashmir, more than 43,000 people have been killed in violence involving Indian troops and Muslim militants since 1989. Human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead or missing.

Levels of violence in Kashmir have actually been falling in the past few years amid tighter Indian security and a tentative peace process between Pakistan and India. -Reuters




Tags: India | protest | kashmir |

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