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Restrictions Continue in Kashmir Despite Security Ease

A woman walks past an Indian paramilitary soldier who prepares to block a road with barbed wires during security lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 18, 2019.

Restrictions continued in much of Indian-administered Kashmir on Sunday, despite India's government saying it was gradually restoring phone lines and easing a security lockdown that's been in place for nearly two weeks.

Soldiers manned nearly deserted streets and limited the movement of the few pedestrians who came out of their homes in Srinagar, the region's main city.

The security crackdown and a news blackout were installed following an Aug. 5 decision by India's Hindu nationalist government to downgrade the Muslim-majority region's autonomy. Authorities started easing restrictions on Saturday.

But the Press Trust of India news agency said authorities re-imposed restrictions in parts of Srinagar after violence was reported on Saturday.

About 300 Kashmiris returned to Srinagar on Sunday from a Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Many of them became emotional while reuniting with their family members who met them at the city's airport. Due to the security and communications lockdown, many travelers were unable to contact anybody in the Kashmir region.

"Neither us nor our relatives here knew if we were dead or alive," Muhammad Ali said after returning from the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Public transport buses started operating in some rural areas in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Saturday. Cellphone and internet services resumed in some districts, but news reports said that happened only in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, which was not threatened by anti-India protests.

The New Delhi government's decision on Kashmir's status has touched off anger in the region and raised tensions with Pakistan. Kashmir is divided between Pakistan and India, but both claim the region in its entirety. The nuclear-armed archrivals have fought two wars over the territory.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan demanded that United Nations observers be deployed to the troubled region.

"This threatens 9 million Kashmiris under siege" in Kashmir, "which should have sent alarm bells ringing across the world with UN Observers being sent there," Khan said Sunday on Twitter.

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh dismissed the idea, and said that if talks are held between New Delhi and Islamabad they would only be on Pakistani-administered Kashmir, not on India's part of the region.

An exchange of gun and mortar fire between Indian and Pakistani forces was reported on Saturday across the militarized Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the countries. India said one of its soldiers was killed in the exchange.

Meanwhile, ordinary people in the region continue to feel the impact of the restrictions.

Nazir Ahmad, a retired engineer who lives in Srinagar, said Saturday that residents were still facing difficulties in buying items such as vegetables, milk and medicine. He said his father is sick and needs a constant supply of medicine, which the family is finding difficult to procure.

"There is no internet, no telephone, no communication, no transportation," said Ahmad, describing the situation as living through a "siege."

"We are living like animals," he said. "So I request everybody, please come and solve this situation. Nobody is coming out" of their homes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended the Kashmir changes as freeing the territory from separatism, and his supporters have welcomed the move. One of the constitutional revisions allows anyone to buy land in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which some Kashmiris fear could change the region's culture and demographics. Critics have likened it to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.