Indian Troops Quit Kashmir Buildings As Violence Dips
31 October 2007
Srinagar: Indian troops have started quitting their positions in houses, hospitals and schools in Kashmir in line with demands from a key government ally, officials said. Last week senior state officials met defence minister A.K. Antony in the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar and it was decided that government forces would leave all private homes, hospitals and schools by November 30. 'The process of vacating buildings has already started,' defence spokesman lieutenant colonel Anil Kumar Mathur told AFP. 'We will hopefully complete the process by the end of next month (November),' he said, adding the deadline applies to all forces, including paramilitary and federal police put into Kashmir after the eruption of an insurgency against Indian rule in 1989. The unrest has so far claimed more than 42,000 lives by official count. Human rights groups put the toll at 60,000 dead and 10,000 missing. The move to vacate troops from buildings they have been occupying for years comes as the region's police last week reported a major drop in militant violence in the scenic Himalayan region. Violence has been falling since India and Pakistan started a peace process in January 2004. Both hold the region in part but claim it in full. India has an estimated half-a-million troops stationed in Kashmir to fight the insurgency and guard its borders with Pakistan, making it one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world. Troops have been camping in schools, hospitals, government buildings and on private property - and their presence on non-military property has contributed to widespread resentment. The People's Democratic Party (PDP), a member of the Kashmir state coalition government, which is led by the Congress party, had threatened to bring down the state government if troops were not withdrawn from populated areas. But New Delhi has ruled out reducing troops, saying such a move would help militants. Nevertheless, the PDP welcomed the move. 'It reflects an approach of objectivity and cooperation to the PDP's demand for a reduction of troops,' PDP leader and former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed said in a statement. Sayeed hoped it would be a 'prelude to measures of wider implication on rationalising the troop concentration for internal security duties' in Kashmir. India is currently engaged in an effort to win 'hearts and minds' in Kashmir, but continues to be hit by allegations of human rights abuses. Earlier this year, several members of India's strong security contingent were charged with killing innocent civilians and passing them off as Islamic militants as a way of earning bonuses and promotions. A plan to spend 5.5 million rupees (140,000 dollars) to renovate Muslim shrines and mosques also fizzled out after Muslim clerics told New Delhi's troops to keep their mainly Hindu hands off Islamic sites.