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Pakistan PM leads demonstration on Kashmir in bid to win over world opinion

SRINAGAR, India/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Cities around Pakistan came to a standstill on Friday as tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets in a government-led demonstration of solidarity with the disputed region of Kashmir, after India revoked its autonomy this month.

People chant slogans during a countrywide 'Kashmir Hour' demonstration to express solidarity with the people of Kashmir, observing a call by Prime Minister Imran Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan August 30, 2019. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

The Pakistani national anthem and an anthem for Kashmir played across television and radio, while traffic came to a standstill, and trains stopped, as part of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s campaign to draw global attention to the plight of the divided Himalayan region.

“We are with them in their testing times. The message that goes out of here today is that as long as Kashmiris don’t get freedom, we will stand with them,” Khan told thousands of demonstrators in the capital, Islamabad.

Muslim-majority Kashmir has long been a flashpoint between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. Both countries rule parts of Kashmir while claiming it in full. Two of the three wars they have fought have been over it.

In Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, suspected militants killed a 62-year-old man, police said, despite a security blanket. The trader was shot outside his home on Thursday night.

Thousands of paramilitary police are deployed in the streets of Srinagar to quell protests stemming from India’s move to revoke a special status for the territory.

India stripped Kashmir of the special status on Aug. 5, blocking the right to frame its own laws and allowing non-residents to buy property there. The government said the reform would facilitate Kashmir’s development, to the benefit of all.

But the move angered many residents of the region, which has been under a security clamp-down ever since with telephone lines, internet and television networks blocked and restrictions on movement and assembly.

Restrictions were tightened in Srinagar on Friday ahead of prayers. In parts of the city where deployment was thin most of this week, armed paramilitary patrols returned to the streets in large numbers, manning checkpoints made with concertina wire and metal barricades.

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The day of action in Pakistan is Khan’s latest attempt to draw global attention to Kashmir and highlight what Islamabad says is India’s heavy-handed occupation of the region.

Pakistan has sought the support of the United States, former colonial power Britain and others to press India over Kashmir.

“As we take up the issue at diplomatic levels, we also want to show the world and the Kashmiri people that they’re not alone in their struggle,” a former foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, told a television channel.

But despite the effort to put Kashmir on the global agenda, Pakistan is increasingly running out of options, foreign affairs analysts say.

Khan has said the Pakistani military is ready to respond, but analysts say Pakistan will avoid at all costs a war it cannot afford as its economy slows.

India remains dead set against any outside interference in the issue. In July, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to be a mediator on Kashmir. India denied it.

Trump later said that the issue needed to be sorted out between the two countries. The U.N. Security Council did not issue a statement on the dispute, after China requested one.

India has battled separatist militants in its part of Kashmir since the late 1980s, accusing Muslim Pakistan of supporting the insurgents.

Pakistan denies that, saying it only offers political support to the people of Kashmir.

But there are also questions about Pakistan’s attempts to draw attention to the suffering of Kashmiris, and cast itself in the role of a responsible international actor, given its long record of supporting various militant groups as proxies in its rivalry with India.

“Pakistan has a global image problem, and it struggles to earn trust and support on the global stage - in contrast to India, which despite its heavy-handed policies in Kashmir enjoys much more trust and favourability internationally,” said Michael Kugelman, from the Woodrow Wilson Center think-tank in Washington.

“Let’s be clear: Pakistan’s international campaign will be a mighty heavy lift and a very tall order.”

The crisis over Kashmir also comes as Pakistan is under pressure from the international watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to show that it is cracking down on militant groups.

The watchdog placed Pakistan last year on a “grey list” of countries with inadequate controls to prevent terrorism funding. That move could curb investment or even attract sanctions if it is down-graded further.

Officials in Pakistan say it is working to show it is behaving responsibly and they rejects suggestions that there could be a temptation to use militants as proxies against India now. “We would be insane to do that,” said one senior official.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in ISLAMABAD and a Reuters journalist in SRINAGAR; Additional reporting by James Mackenzie and Devjyot Ghoshal in NEW DELHI; Editing by Robert Birsel