SRINAGAR, India – Residents in Indian-controlled Kashmir clashed with government forces Saturday as they defied a stringent curfew on the anniversary of the killing of a charismatic rebel leader whose death triggered open defiance against Indian rule.
Officials and witnesses said residents in the main city of Srinagar and at least four places in southern Kashmir tried to march on the streets while chanting slogans in favour of rebels and ending Indian rule. Police and paramilitary soldiers fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.
The protesters responded by hurling rocks at troops. At least 15 people were reported injured in the clashes.
While Kashmir has remained on edge, the Indian and Pakistani armies, which regularly trade fire and blame across the de-facto militarized frontier that divides the disputed territory between them, fired at each other’s positions, killing three civilians and an off-duty soldier, officials said.
Pakistan’s military said two civilians were killed and three others wounded in the Indian army’s “unprovoked” firing and shelling at two places along the highly militarized Line of Control.
India’s military said an off-duty soldier visiting his home was killed along with his wife after a shell fired from the Pakistani side hit their house in Poonch sector. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Manish Mehta called it an “unprovoked” violation of the 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan.
India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
For the second straight day, government forces sealed off the hometown of Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old rebel leader who was killed along with two associates in a gunbattle with Indian troops last year. Witnesses said security forces ordered residents in southern Tral town to stay indoors.
“I’ve never seen so many soldiers in aggressive posturing enforcing a curfew in my town. This is an unprecedented restriction,” local resident Mohammed Hanief said by phone.
Troops laid steel barricades and coiled razor wire on roads and intersections to cut off neighbourhoods as authorities anticipated widespread protests. They also shut mobile internet services as part of the lockdown to stop activists from rallying online support.
“We’re enforcing strict restrictions to deal with any law and order issues,” said S.P. Vaid, the region’s police chief.
Separatist leaders, who challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir, called for a strike and protests to honour Wani. Most of the top leaders have either been detained or put under house arrest.
Wani’s killing set off months of protests and deadly clashes across the region, during which at least 90 people were killed and thousands injured.
Wani, who attracted dozens of new recruits while using Facebook and other social media sites, had rejuvenated Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest of Kashmir’s militant groups. Its top leader based in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Syed Salahuddin, was recently designated as a “global terrorist” by the U.S.
In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, Salahuddin asked Pakistan for military support to militants as he spoke Saturday at a rally attended by thousands of people to honour Wani.
“We don’t need only political, diplomatic and moral support. Now we need a solid military support against Indian forces,” Salahuddin said.
The death of Wani and the public fury it caused made the armed rebellion mainstream in Kashmir and gave new life to the militant movement that had withered in recent years, reduced to just about 100 fighters in scattered rebel outfits. Officials say that since his killing, at least 100 young men have joined rebel ranks, some of them after snatching weapons from soldiers and police.
It also cemented a shift in public behaviour by displaying anger at Indian rule openly and violently when troops raid villages and towns to hunt rebels. Villagers who had learned to hide any sympathy they felt for fighters now speak of them openly with reverence and warmth and also engage in deadly clashes with government forces during their counterinsurgency operations.
Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence or merger with neighbouring Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting and the ensuing Indian crackdown.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among the region’s mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels despite a decades-long military crackdown.
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.