Thu, Nov 18, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Gunbattle mars Kashmir withdrawals

SECURITY NIGHTMARE A rally that was to be held in Srinagar to mark the start of Indian troop withdrawals from Kashmir erupted into a bloody gunbattle, killing two

AFP , SRINAGAR

Indian soldiers carry the body of a suspected militant killed yesterday in a gun battle in Srinagar, India.

PHOTO: AP

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew into a security nightmare yesterday after a deadly gunbattle erupted at the scene of a rally he was to hold marking the start of army withdrawals from insurgency-wracked Kashmir.

But the troop pullout went ahead and a battalion of 1,000 paratroopers left the northern Kashmiri town of Anantag.

Two militants were shot dead by Indian troops, said K. Srinivasan, senior officer of the Border Security Force, while an army sergeant said a civilian had been killed in the crossfire.

The suspected Islamic militants fired on soldiers, correspondents reported, as the premier's flight took off from the capital New Delhi for Srinagar, the urban hub of anti-India Muslim militancy.

By the time he landed mid-morning in Kashmir's summer capital the rebels had holed up in a half-built house atop a hill overlooking the cricket ground where Singh was scheduled to speak.

Sporadic shooting continued for about three hours after a troop patrol first came under fire, despite a massive security blanket thrown over Srinagar this week.

Residents had scurried for cover as security forces unleashed fire from behind vehicles.

Television channels showed the dramatic firefight live and soldiers were seen occupying the hideout as the clash ended.

A strike called by a hardline separatist faction led by Syed Geelani kept virtually all shops and business closed and the streets largely deserted, reporters said.

The public rally at the Sheri Kashmir stadium, billed as a highlight of Singh's two-day itinerary, was delayed for several hours, officials said.

The premier, who opened his visit with a trip to the city's main Hazratbal mosque, had said he hoped his trip would help put "this chapter of violence in Kashmir behind us."

Singh described his trip as part of an effort "to reach out to the minds and hearts" of Kashmiris and apart from the open-air rally, the prime minister was to visit a mosque and meet Kashmir University's faculty.

The address was to have been the second time since the eruption of insurgency against New Delhi's rule in 1989 that an Indian premier would attend a rally in Srinagar.

Supporters from Singh's Con-gress party had strung banners and party flags around the stadium to celebrate the event, which had been cloaked in supposedly high security in recent days.

In the same stadium former Indian premier Atal Behari Vajpayee addressed a gathering on April 18 last year and extended a historic "hand of friendship" to nuclear-armed rival Pakistan.

The two countries have since been mending ties, strained by continuing conflict over the control of Kashmir, a scenic Himalayan region held in part by each of the two neighbors and claimed in full by both.

As India and Pakistan work to push forward a peace process for Kashmir, the premier himself announced the troop reduction last week.

The first Indian forces to be redeployed left Anantnag in a convoy of trucks and buses.

The paratroopers, dressed in khaki and sporting green berets, headed for the northern Indian city of Agra.

"The first batch of troops commenced de-induction from the valley on Nov. 17," defense spokesman R.K. Sen announced.

The paratroopers had been stationed at Anantnag, 50km south of Srinagar, for the past six months.

Indian Kashmir's chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed had earlier told reporters that people in the region were "happy" at the troop pullout.

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