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India to free protesters in Kashmir peace move

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Authorities in Indian Kashmir will free jailed protesters and reduce the number of checkpoints in the main city Srinagar, a senior security official said on Wednesday.

Policemen stand guard as Kashmiri people shop inside a shop during a relaxation in curfew in Srinagar September 26, 2010. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

But they put off a decision over whether to limit the scope of a hated security law that the Indian military enforces in the Muslim-majority region to curb persistent unrest.

The move was part of a federal government initiative to defuse tension in Kashmir, which has been in a siege-like state of strikes, protests and curfew for months, threatening to undermine rule from New Delhi.

More than 100 people have been killed and scores arrested in protests since June -- among the biggest since an armed separatist rebellion broke out in Kashmir in 1989.

“The state government will immediately release youth and students who have been arrested for stone pelting,” B.R. Sharma, Kashmir’s home secretary, told a news conference after a security meeting. “It was decided to remove 16 bunkers in Srinagar city ... It is a significant beginning.”

He did not say how many detainees would be released.

The federal government has also said a team will soon begin a dialogue with a broad cross-section of Kashmiris, including political parties, aiming to restore the credibility of Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in the face of growing discontent.

But Wednesday’s decisions were unlikely to appease many Kashmiris, who have been looking for revocation of a widely-hated security law that gives the military sweeping powers to search, arrest or shoot protesters.

More than half a million security personnel are deployed in Kashmir, most of which, for years, has been declared “disturbed”, a precondition for the application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

The government had also last week said it would review the possibility of limiting the extent of the security act.

But on Wednesday, Kashmiri authorities announced only the formation of a committee to review the law’s application and submit a report to the government.

Despite widespread curfews, separatists have staged three months of strikes and protests. The protests have subsided for about a week now.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claim the region in full. They have fought two of their three wars over it. Kashmiri separatists in India want to carve out an independent homeland or merge with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

(Reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq; Editing by Rajesh Kumar Singh and Mark Heinrich)

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