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Protesters Rally to End Indian Rule Over Kashmir

Protesters staged a mass rally in Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, Friday to call for an end to India's rule of the disputed Himalayan region. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Srinagar.

Tens of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of Srinagar Friday. They were waving green and black flags and shouting slogans such as "Azadi," Urdo for independence. At a massive rally at the prayer grounds, known as Eid Gah, in the center of the city, Kashmiri leaders called for independence from India.

This protest and others earlier this week are the latest in an escalation of tensions in Kashmir Valley. A controversial land deal sparked the first protests, but they quickly ballooned into a renewed independence struggle.

Younis Mir, a 25-year-old Kashmiri, is one of the protesters.

"All people have assembled here in the Eid Gah," he said. "Our main mission is the freedom of Kashmir, nothing else. We are not spreading terrorism. There is no movement of terrorism in Kashmir. It is a freedom struggle, a simple freedom struggle. Freedom from Indian occupation."

Earlier this summer, the Jammu and Kashmir state government transferred about 40 hectares of forested land (nearly 100 acres) to a Hindu shrine board to provide temporary shelters for tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit a cave shrine. Kashmir's Muslims protested the transfer, saying it would lead to permanent Hindu settlements.

The government then rescinded the transfer, triggering violent protests by some of the region's Hindu population. Hindu protesters blocked the only direct road between Kashmir Valley and the rest of India, choking off supplies of food and fuel to the valley.

Hindu protestors cut off Kashmiri fruit growers from markets in New Delhi during the peak of the apple harvest, which usually brings in at least $150 million a year and is Kashmir's biggest cash crop.

Many shops were shut down Friday in anticipation of the protests, which were largely peaceful as Indian army troops stood by behind their razor wire bunkers.

The unrest has paralyzed many businesses in Kashmir Valley, just when the economy was starting to pick up, led by a resurgence of tourism in the picturesque valley tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Mohammed Amin owns a grocery store in Srinagar. He says businesses in Kashmir are bracing for a long period of civil unrest.

"There are no supplies," he said. "That is the main thing. Business is suffering, about 75 percent of it has gone. Tourism is zero now. I do not know how long it will last, but for two months we are suffering."

Indian authorities claim they have opened the road leading out of Kashmir. Trucks loaded with supplies are getting through, but observers say it is only about a fourth of the normal traffic. There are almost daily reports of attacks against truck drivers by Hindu protesters.

At least 350,000 Indian troops patrol Indian-controlled Kashmir, many of them along the line of control between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir.

Since 1989, more than 45,000 people have been killed in sporadic violence between Indian troops and Muslim militants. At least 6,000 suspected Muslim militants in Kashmir have disappeared after being arrested by Indian security forces, human rights groups say.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over it since the two nuclear-armed nations split in 1947.