SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Police shot dead at least 13 people Monday in anti-government and Koran demonstrations across Indian Kashmir in the biggest single death toll from protests in the disputed region in years.
The toll includes nine people killed in police clashes after Muslim protesters set fire to a Christian missionary school and government buildings in two districts to denounce reports that copies of the Koran had been damaged in the United States.
One policeman was also killed by stone-throwing protesters defying a curfew in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.
The deaths are a huge challenge for the Congress-led government, which has been criticized for failing to treat the protests seriously, underscoring a policy limbo in New Delhi that may spill over into tension with Pakistan, which claims Kashmir.
The nuclear-armed neighbors have twice gone to war over Kashmir since independence.
Police said these Koran demonstrations, attended by thousands in western Kashmir, quickly turned into separatist protests against the Indian central government — a day after authorities slapped a curfew on much of the restive Himalayan region.
Protesters, many wearing green headbands, shouted “There is no God but Allah” and “Death to America.” Witnesses said crowds in Budgam burned an effigy of U.S. President Barack Obama.
At least 113 policemen and 45 protesters were injured. Police in Kashmir said separatist leaders were inciting the violence.
Kashmir has seen mass rallies against Indian rule in the last three months and at least 70 protesters had been killed by police. Demonstrations on other issues — such as the Koran — can often balloon into wider anti-government sentiment.
Sunday, two people were killed in a third straight day of violent protests in Afghanistan sparked by a U.S. pastor’s threat to burn copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
While pastor Terry Jones dropped his plans, there were at least two incidents of abuse of the Koran in Lower Manhattan in New York Saturday. Two evangelical preachers not affiliated with any mainstream church burned two copies of the Koran in Tennessee.
It was unclear which incidents the Kashmiri demonstrators were denouncing. Iranian TV reports were aired in Kashmir on Sunday about alleged desecrations of the Koran - a grave insult to Muslims who believe the Koran to be the literal word of God.
A new generation of young Kashmiris, who have grown up with house raids, police killings and army checkpoints, feel increasingly angry at Indian rule and champion street protests rather than the violent militancy that characterized the 1990s.
The protests unfolded as Indian authorities extended a curfew Monday in most of Kashmir, deployed thousands of troops to quell protests and prevented a planned march by separatists to a U.N. office in the region’s biggest city.
“The latest incident today shows they have not learnt from past mistakes and things have clearly gone out of hand,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.
In Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, troops patrolled streets, erected barricades and blocked roads leading to the offices of U. N. Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan.
In a sign of increasing concern in New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rare public statement on Kashmir, although a cabinet meeting failed to come up with any public decision.
“The youth of Kashmir are our citizens and their grievances have to be addressed.... We are willing to talk to every person or group which abjures violence, within the framework of our constitution,” Singh said.
In a potential embarrassment for the government, the New Delhi-backed leader of Kashmir state Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, was reportedly under pressure to resign for failing to contain deadly anti-government protests.
But there is little risk for the Congress-led Indian government. Most Indians show little interest for what is happening in Kashmir and there is a general consensus in the country that Kashmir should remain part of India.
The government is considering a partial lifting of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir as part of a peace initiative expected in the next few days.
The law gives security forces sweeping powers to shoot, arrest, search and detain people in battling a separatist insurgency. But the army appears opposed to any relaxation and Monday’s protests may have also dampened the chance of reform.
Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Ron Popeski