India says easing Kashmir restrictions 'in phased manner'

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Security personnel stop an auto-rickshaw for questioning at a roadblock during a lockdown in Srinagar on Monday. — AFP

NEW DELHI — India's government said Tuesday it is easing its lockdown in Kashmir in a "phased manner" after cutting phone and internet access for over a week to prevent protests over its decision to end the Himalayan region's autonomy.

Fearing unrest, India snapped telecommunications and imposed a curfew in the part of Kashmir it controls on Aug. 4, a day before its surprise presidential decree to strip the Muslim-majority region of its special status.

Tens of thousands of troop reinforcements have been deployed to the main city of Srinagar and other towns and villages, turning the picturesque city into a deserted warren of barbed wire and barricades.

An Indian home ministry spokesperson said on Twitter that the restrictions "are being eased out in a phased manner" in the tinderbox Kashmir Valley.

Normal communication in the more peaceful Jammu division of the region "has been restored after assessment by relevant local authorities", the spokesperson added.

There was no independent confirmation of the easing of restrictions. On Tuesday afternoon people in Kashmir could still not be reached by phone and the internet appeared to be inaccessible.

The spokesperson said that medical services are being provided "without any hindrance" and the availability of medicines has "been ensured" in every hospital in the valley.

A main highway through the region "continues to function normally", with 100 heavy vehicles "plying daily" carrying fuel and other essentials.

Earlier, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal told India's Supreme Court security appeared to be getting better.

"The situation in J&K is being reviewed every day and there are signs of improvement," Venugopal said, as the court heard a plea by an activist against the lockdown.

The spokesperson on Tuesday also confirmed for the first time that clashes took place on Friday after Muslim prayers.

According to residents around 8,000 people took part in a protest, with security forces firing tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns to break up the demonstration.

"(The) miscreants mingled with people returning home after prayers at a local mosque. They resorted to unprovoked stone pelting against law enforcement forces to cause widespread unrest," the spokesperson tweeted.

"Law enforcement authorities showed restraint and tried to maintain law & order situation. It is reiterated that no bullets have been fired in #JammuAndKashmir since the development related to #Article370," the spokesperson added, referring to the scrapped article in India's constitution related to Kashmir.

Authorities had eased restrictions temporarily on Sunday to let residents buy food and supplies for Eid, a major Muslim festival.

But security was tightened again after sporadic protests involving hundreds of people during the day, residents said. Police vans roamed the streets late Sunday ordering people to stay indoors.

For Eid on Monday the Himalayan region's biggest mosque, the Jama Masjid, was ordered shut and people were only allowed to pray in smaller local mosques so that no big crowds could gather, witnesses said.

Footage filmed by AFP on Monday showed hundreds of people protesting in the Soura area of Srinagar, shouting slogans such as "We want freedom" and "India go back".

Three helicopters continuously hovered over the area as protesters jeered and shook fists at the aircraft.

"What India has done is unacceptable to us. Our struggle will continue even if India keeps Kashmir locked down for months. Only solution is that India has to accept what Kashmiris want," one protester said.

"India is a sham democracy and the world should take note of the atrocities this country is doing against us," another said.

Kashmir has been split between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947.

Rebel groups have for decades fought against Indian soldiers deployed in the part of Kashmir controlled by New Delhi, seeking the territory's merger with Pakistan or outright independence.

The conflict has left tens of thousands dead, mostly civilians. — AFP


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