October 29, 2019 / 10:29 AM / 15 days ago

Five killed as EU delegation visits disputed Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Five people were killed by militants in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday, police said, as a group of European Union lawmakers began the first visit by a foreign delegation to the disputed region since New Delhi revoked its autonomy in August.

A convoy of vehicles carrying European Union lawmakers is seen after they arrived in Srinagar October 29, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

In the single bloodiest incident in recent months, two police officials said the five men - all construction workers from West Bengal state in eastern India - were shot dead in the Kulgam district. One person was injured.

“Five-bullet ridden bodies were discovered from the room where these laborers were staying,” one of the two police officials said. Both officials declined to be named since they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Militants have been fighting Indian rule over Kashmir for nearly three decades, and police say that these groups have increasingly targeted non-Kashmiris either working in the state or doing business there since August.

India accuses Pakistan of backing militants in Kashmir, which Islamabad denies. Both countries claim the region in full but rule in parts.

The latest killings followed a day of stone-throwing protests across parts of Kashmir after a weeks-long lull, triggered by the arrival of 23 EU lawmakers.

Residents voiced anger that the federal government was trying to show the delegation Kashmir was returning to normal, even as most mobile phone and Internet connections remain severed and daily life disrupted by a security clamp-down.

Two officials, one from the government and the other from the police and both declining to be named, said demonstrations began anew in around 40 different locations in the Himalayan territory, including the main city of Srinagar.

The demonstration in Srinagar started hours before the EU delegation’s arrival and continued through the day. The security forces fired tear gas, the police official and Reuters witnesses said.

At least eight protesters were treated at Srinagar’s main SMHS hospital for injuries.

Protesters also pelted security forces with stones in at least six other towns, the police official said.

‘RETURNING TO NORMAL’

Indian officials say the situation in Kashmir is returning to normal and hope the EU visit will help counter international condemnation of the government’s handling of the situation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the EU lawmakers on Monday and said their visit would give them a clear view of the development priorities of Kashmir, his office said.

But opposition parties were angry that the EU lawmakers were being allowed into a region from which most Indian politicians have been barred since Aug. 5, when New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special status and stifled dissent.

“MPs (members of parliament) from Europe are welcome to go on a guided tour of Jammu and Kashmir while Indian MPs are banned and denied entry,” Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said in a tweet. “There is something very wrong with that.”

Indian security officials turned back several opposition politicians from Srinagar airport over the last several weeks, saying the situation was not stable enough for such visits.

New Delhi says its revocation of Kashmir’s special status is essential to integrating India’s only Muslim-majority territory into the rest of India and spur development there.

‘HOLDING US AT GUNPOINT’

The EU delegation - some of them from far-right parties - was driven in a cavalcade of black SUVs, accompanied by armed troops and security jeeps, to a military cantonment in Srinagar. This was to be followed by meetings with civil society members and businessmen, two government officials told Reuters.

Slideshow (4 Images)

“The government is trying to fool them. If they want to know the ground reality, they should meet the common people,” said Srinagar resident Altaf Ahmed, standing near the site of a protest in the city’s old quarter. “We want to tell them that the government of India is holding us at gunpoint.”

At dusk, the EU lawmakers made their way to Srinagar’s picturesque Dal Lake for boat rides on the mirror-calm waters, while security men swarmed the popular tourist site.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) in Geneva on Tuesday urged Indian authorities “to unlock the situation (in Kashmir) and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied”.

Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari and Zeba Siddiqui; writing by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Grant McCool

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