India Tightens Security For Hindu Pilgrimage In Kashmir

17 June 2008

Srinagar: India has deployed over 6,000 police and paramilitary personnel to secure the route taken by thousands of Hindus during the annual pilgrimage to an icy cave shrine in Kashmir, officials said Tuesday. The tightening of security for the pilgrimage comes as Islamic rebels have stepped up attacks in the revolt-hit region in recent days. In the past, the Amarnath Yatra, as the pilgrimage is known locally, has been the target of militant groups battling Indian-rule in the Muslim majority region. 'More than 6,000 police and paramilitary men have been deployed to guard the pilgrims,' as the first batch of 2,500 devotees left the state winter capital Jammu in a caravan of buses, cars and trucks, a senior paramilitary officer told AFP. The group was to reach the base camp at Nunwun, 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Jammu, later Tuesday. From Nunwun, the pilgrims will start their 50-kilometre trek, up treacherous mountain paths to see a stalagmite that is worshipped as a representation of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction, before it melts. According to the authorities, some 400,000 pilgrims visited the immensely popular shrine last year, located at an altitude of 3,800 metres (12,800 feet) in the Himalayan foothills. Violence in Indian Kashmir has fallen sharply since India and Pakistan launched a peace process in 2004 to resolve all pending disputes including Kashmir, divided between the two but claimed by both. But the authorities were not lowering their guard in the wake of a series of attacks in Srinagar over the weekend. 'We have made extensive security arrangements for the pilgrims,' said Mehboob Iqbal, a senior official in northern Kashmir. Last year, a local shopkeeper was killed and 30 others, mostly pilgrims, wounded in two grenade attacks by suspected militants during the pilgrimage. The Islamic insurgency in Kashmir has claimed more than 43,000 lives since 1989.