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Asia Crisis

FEATURE-Kashmir mother urges decent funeral for "missing" son

SRINAGAR, India, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Parveena Ahanger searched for her son for 16 years in graveyards, security camps, and police stations across Indian Kashmir.

"But all in vain. I am sure he lies buried somewhere without the last rites," the 48-year-old said, as tears rolled down her face.

Ahanger said any doubt about her son's death had dissipated after police exhumed five bodies in Kashmir two weeks ago, including a carpenter, a street vendor and Muslim priest.

All five disappeared last year.

Families say they were innocent people, murdered on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir summer capital, in what have been dubbed "fake encounters" -- staged gunbattles where police claim to have killed suspected militants.

"Now I am sure that my son and others who disappeared were killed in fake encounters," she said.

Javid Ahmad Ahanger was 17 when he vanished.

The killings have thrown a spotlight on thousands of people who human rights groups say have disappeared since a revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989.

The public outcry about the latest cases has forced the police to instigate a rare probe into the conduct of their own forces. Eight policemen, including two senior officers, have been arrested and accused of killing the five people.

FURTHER ALIENATION

But it may be too late to appease many angry Kashmiri Muslims, who feel they have been never been accepted or treated fairly by the rest of mainly Hindu India.

"The recent disclosures may further alienate Kashmiris from India," said Noor Ahmad Baba, head of Kashmir University's political science department.

The verdant valleys and snow-capped peaks of Kashmir have witnessed continuous bloodshed since Muslim militants took up arms against Indian rule in 1989

Officials say more than 40,000 people have been killed. Human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead or missing.

"Give us at least bodies of our loved ones so that we can give them a decent Islamic burial," whispered Ahanger, who last week joined Mohammad Yasin Malik, a senior separatist leader, in a three-day fast in protest at the killings.

More than two dozen other women, young and old, joined them on the fast, carrying pictures of missing relatives.

"I want to kiss the remains of my dear son, at least tell me where he lies buried," cried 75-year-old Saja, whose son disappeared in Kashmir's northern Kupwara district 11 years ago.

One of the five men whose bodies were exhumed last week was Abdul Rehman Padder, a 35-year-old carpenter.

"I never thought that my son would meet this fate," said his frail, white-bearded 70 year-old father, Ghulam Rasool Padder, last week.

"Who will take care of me now and his five little children?"

JOINED MILITANT GROUPS

The independent Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), says at least 10,000 people have disappeared in the past 17 years, most of them in the "custody of Indian security forces".

Indian authorities put the numbers of missing at between 1,000 and 3,000. They deny allegations that people disappear from custody and say their investigations reveal that most of them crossed into Pakistani Kashmir for arms training.

"The government is keen to bring the facts about all innocent killings and disappearances to the fore," Kashmir's Chief Minster Ghulam Nabi Azad said in a statement last week.

"The expectation is not of justice," said Syed Abinah Nawaz, a psychiatrist. "She (Ahanger) and other parents want to lay their children into the graves themselves, and once and for all end these days and night of uncertainty."

In March 2000, troops killed five villagers who the army said were foreign militants involved in the killing of 36 Sikhs in south Kashmir. A central government investigation later found that the men were civilians killed in a "fake encounter".

"The true fate of the people who have disappeared in this conflict, possibly may never be known," Ghulam Nabi, the father of 27-year-old Mukhtar Ahmad, a cigarette seller, who "vanished" after security forces raided their house in 2000.

"Let us pray for them," Nabi said in a dimly lit room of his house built on the edge of a graveyard in Srinagar as muezzin in the nearby mosque made the call for prayer.

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