SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian police beat Kashmiri protesters who defied a curfew on Tuesday and troops searched for separatist leaders as the biggest anti-India protests in two decades showed no sign of abating.
Authorities said they had detained four separatist leaders since Monday. They raided the homes of dozens of leaders in a sweep that began on Monday night.
Asiya Andrabi, chief of Kashmir’s women’s separatist group Dukhtaran-e-Milat (Daughters of the Muslim Faith) who led series of anti-India protests over the last two weeks was detained late on Tuesday, police said.
Police on Monday killed five protesters who defied the curfew, bringing the death toll to at least 28 in the biggest demonstrations since a revolt against Indian rule by the region’s Muslim majority broke out in 1989.
The Indian government says its security forces have been fired upon by protesters on several occasions, questioning separatist statements that their protests were peaceful.
The government has also disputed whether Sheikh Aziz, a senior separatist leader, was killed by police gunfire, saying someone among the crowd of protesters could have shot him.
More than 600 people have been injured in clashes over the two weeks of protests. The state, whose tourist brochures proclaim the Kashmir valley as “paradise on earth”, has suffered more than $1 billion in lost business.
Police used tear gas and beat hundreds of protesters with batons for defying the curfew in the Achabal area, about 100 km (60 miles) south of Srinagar, the summer capital, police said.
Residents in Kashmir stayed indoors as the military extended the curfew for a third day. Authorities blocked four local
television channels from broadcasting on Sunday.
The crisis has strained relations between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full but rule in parts, damaging a tentative peace process and raising fears Kashmir could again become a hotspot between the two nuclear rivals.
It has also raised fears of communal tension in the state, which is split between the Hindu-majority region around Jammu city and the Muslim Kashmir valley.
Residents say the deaths have fuelled more anger against India and further alienated Kashmiris from New Delhi.
“During three months of violent protests in Jammu police have killed three Hindus, just three Hindus,” said 45-year-old Gausi Khan, a doctor.
“And in just two weeks these people have killed more than 30 people (Muslims). This simple mathematics tells you India treats us like slaves.”
The crisis began after the state 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 blocked the region’s only road link and attacked lorries carrying supplies to the Kashmir valley.
The protests have tentatively united a disparate group of separatists like the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, which condemns militant violence, and the breakaway group of hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for years seen as marginalized.
The government could be forced to suspend state elections due in Jammu and Kashmir this year, which would be a victory for separatists who have urged a boycott of any vote.
Officials say more than 43,000 people have been killed in violence involving Indian troops and Muslim militants since 1989. Human rights groups put the toll at about 60,000 dead or missing.
Levels of violence in Kashmir had been falling in the past few years amid tighter Indian security and a peace process between Pakistan and India.
Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Myra MacDonald