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Vast Muslim crowd gathers to protest Indian rule in Kashmir

By Aijaz Hussain
Associated Press / August 23, 2008
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SRINAGAR, India - Hundreds of thousands of Muslims marched in Indian Kashmir's main city yesterday in the largest protest against Indian rule in over a decade, intensifying the turmoil that has roiled the Himalayan region.

Long lines of people carrying green and black protest flags thronged a main square in Srinagar, the region's biggest city, for the rally called by a coalition of separatist political parties. Schools, businesses, and shops were shut across the region and public transportation was halted.

The massive crowd shouted anti-India and pro-independence slogans, making it impossible for separatist leaders to address the protesters.

"This is a freedom movement, a people's movement. We are united to fight India until we get freedom," said Salman Ahmed, a 27-year-old protester.

Police estimated the crowd at 275,000, while organizers said it was considerably larger. There was no reported violence.

Leaders announced plans for a weekend strike that they said would shut down the city completely.

The protest followed a three-day hiatus that allowed residents to stock up on supplies after nearly two months of unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir pitting the region's Muslim majority against the Hindu minority. The violence has left at least 34 people dead, most of them protesters shot during clashes with police and soldiers.

Several thousand police officers in riot gear patrolled the streets ahead of the rally but later pulled back, apparently in a bid to reduce tensions.

The crowds converged on the Eidgah grounds, near the Martyr's Graveyard where hundreds of separatist rebels and civilians who died in the region's 19-year insurgency are buried.

A statement from the organizers said the protest was called to honor "martyrs of the movement and pray for Kashmir's freedom from the colonial oppression."

The crisis began in June with a dispute over land for pilgrims visiting a Hindu shrine. Muslims launched protests complaining that a government decision to transfer land to a Hindu trust was actually a settlement plan meant to alter the religious balance in the region. After the plan was rescinded Hindus took to the streets of Jammu, a predominantly Hindu city in the state, demanding it be restored.

At least seven Muslim protesters were injured in a clash with police in Jammu yesterday after they threw stones at a police station while chanting pro-Muslim slogans, said senior police official K. Rajendra.

The unrest has unleashed pent-up tensions between Kashmir's Muslims and Hindus and threatened to snap the bonds between India and its only Muslim-majority state.

There is a long history of separatist movements in Kashmir, which has been divided between India and Pakistan since 1948. Most were peaceful until 1989, when a bloody Islamic insurgency began. The insurgents want to see India's part of the region merged with Pakistan or given independence.

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