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Toll rises as Muslims protest in Kashmir

SRINAGAR (Reuters) - Police shot dead a Muslim protester as huge crowds shouting “we want freedom” took to the streets of Kashmir on Thursday over a land row that is testing New Delhi’s hold on the troubled Himalayan region.

Kashmiri Muslim women cry during the funeral of a youth who mourners said had died when police fired on protesters in Srinagar, August 14, 2008. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Police have now killed at least 22 Muslim demonstrators this week and more than 500 people have been injured during some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt against New Delhi broke out in the region 20 years ago.

Seven other demonstrators were wounded when police opened fire to disperse protesters in downtown Srinagar. Protesters torched a police vehicle and hoisted green flags in several areas of Kashmir valley.

The row pits Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu -- the two main regions which make up the state of Jammu and Kashmir -- in one of the hardest challenges facing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government since it took office in 2004.

The crisis has also raised tensions with nuclear rival Pakistan. India has accused Islamabad of interfering in its internal affairs by calling for United Nations intervention in the region, which both nations claim in full but rule in parts.

India reacted angrily to a statement from the Organisation of the Islamic Conference expressing “deep concern over the deteriorating situation in Indian Occupied Kashmir.”

“OIC has once again chosen to comment upon Jammu and Kashmir and India’s internal affairs on which it has no locus standi (legal standing to intervene). We reject such comments,” India’s foreign ministry said late on Thursday.

In India’s Hindu-dominated Jammu region, a Hindu activist committed suicide by swallowing insecticide in protest against the government, police said.

FOREST DISPUTE

The dispute began after the Kashmir government promised to give forest land to a trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged.

The government then rescinded its decision, which in turn angered Hindus in Jammu who attacked lorries carrying supplies to Kashmir valley and blocked the region’s highway, the only surface link with the rest of India.

The dispute has snowballed into a full-scale anti-India protest, uniting Kashmiri separatists and reviving calls for independence.

Authorities relaxed a curfew for a few hours in Srinagar late on Thursday, but most of the streets were deserted except for security patrols.

Police and soldiers increased security around a stadium in Srinagar where independence day celebrations are to be held on Friday. Separatist groups called for a general strike and labelled Friday a “black day”.

“I strongly condemn the reign of terror let loose by the Indian forces against the besieged people of Kashmir,” said separatist leader Mohammed Yasin Malik, who led a protest in Srinagar. “Indian troops cannot suppress our struggle.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch urged India to show restraint. “The Indian government should order troops and police to refrain from using lethal force against violent protesters in Jammu and Kashmir unless absolutely necessary to protect life,” it said.

Additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan in Jammu

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