SRINAGAR, INDIAN-CONTROLLED KASHMIR - Police have arrested at least 200 activists seeking the end of Indian rule in disputed Kashmir, officials said Saturday, escalating fears among already wary residents that a sweeping crackdown could touch off renewed anti-India protests and clashes.
The crackdown comes amid high tensions between India and Pakistan following the Feb. 14 suicide car bombing of a paramilitary convoy by a local Kashmiri militant. Forty Indian soldiers died in the attack, the worst against Indian government forces in Kashmir's history.
India quickly blamed the attack on Pakistan and promised a “jaw-breaking response.” Pakistan warned India against linking it to the attack without an investigation, and offered a dialogue to resolve all issues, including Kashmir.
Police said Saturday that they went to neighborhoods overnight and rounded up top leaders and activists of mainly Jama'at-e-Islami, a political-religious group that espouses the right to self-determination for Kashmir, a Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.
Among those arrested were Jama'at-e-Islami head Abdul Hamid Fayaz and Mohammed Yasin Malik, an influential pro-independence leader who heads the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front. Malik was picked up from his home overnight in the region's main city of Srinagar, where most shops and businesses closed impromptu to protest the crackdown.
Police gave no reason for the arrests.
Through the night, Indian fighter aircraft and military helicopters hovered above the region. Indian military officials offered no comment about it.
Residents fear the crackdown could be a prelude to a military strike by India against Pakistan or the tinkering of Kashmir's special status in India's constitution. India's Supreme Court has yet to give its verdict on a petition against the special provision that it has been hearing for more than a year.
Since 1989, rebels have been fighting against Indian control in Kashmir. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and ensuing crackdown.
Most Kashmiris support the rebels' demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.