India arrests leaders in Kashmir

24 August 2008

London: Indian police have arrested the two most prominent separatist leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir ahead of a protest rally in defiance of a curfew. Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Omar Farooq were arrested at their homes on Sunday night, hours before the rally was due to begin in Srinagar. An indefinite curfew was imposed on Sunday morning to prevent protesters reaching the city. Separatist rallies drew hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks. The strength of the protests is an embarrassment for the Indian authorities, the BBC's Altaf Hussain reports. 'Journalists beaten' Protests by the Muslim majority population have continued despite the curfew, with one person killed and another wounded as police fired on a crowd in Srinagar. Local journalists say 15 of their colleagues were beaten up by police The valley is already paralysed by a strike called by separatist groups who want an end to Indian rule, with shops banks and schools shut. Thousands of troops have been drafted in to patrol Srinagar's streets. Federal police opened fire on protesters who defied the curfew and took to the streets shouting pro-freedom slogans. Authorities say a number of people were injured when police fired tear gas elsewhere in the valley. Local media say 15 journalists were among those beaten by Indian police as they tried to cover the protest, despite having curfew passes. The strikers want a referendum which they hope will lead to self-determination for the region. 'Repression' On Friday, hundreds of thousands of Muslims took part in a protest rally called by separatist leaders in Srinagar. The authorities announced the curfew early on Sunday, saying it was a 'precautionary measure'. Reports suggested police had carried out raids on separatists homes overnight on Saturday. Speaking before his arrest, Mr Farooq said the Indian authorities were afraid of 'peaceful but massive demonstrations for freedom'. 'Such repressive measures will not work. We will emerge stronger and more vibrant,' he told AFP news agency. The strike comes amid continuing separatist violence in the region. Fifteen people died in a gun battle on Friday between militants and the authorities near the Line of Control - the de facto border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Army officials said three soldiers were critically wounded during the battle, which they said was the fiercest this year in Kashmir. The recent trouble started when the state government said it would grant 99 acres (40 hectares) of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board. Muslims launched violent protests, saying the allocation of land was aimed at altering the demographic balance in the area. The government said the board needed the land to erect huts and toilets for visiting pilgrims. But following days of protests, the government rescinded the order, prompting Hindu groups to mount violent protests of their own.