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Forces threw tear gas as Kashmir marks key anniversary

Key anniversary

Government forces threw tear gas and clashed with stone-throwing protesters in Indian Kashmir on Saturday, as the volatile Himalayan region marked the anniversary of a hugely popular rebel leader’s death.

Thousands of troops have fanned out across Indian-administered Kashmir, where authorities have imposed a widespread curfew and cut off all internet services after separatist leaders called for a week of demonstrations.

Disputed Kashmir has seen an explosion of protests against Indian rule since government forces shot and killed Burhan Wani a year ago.

The death of the charismatic 23-year-old, who had built up a big following on social media, sparked an outpouring of grief and anger that spilled into the streets and led to months of clashes with security forces.

Nearly 100 people died in the months that followed and many more sustained serious eye injuries from the pellet guns used by government forces to quell the protests.

Separatist leaders — most of whom were either confined to their homes or detained in the run-up to the anniversary — had called for a week of protests from Saturday to mark Wani’s death.

All roads leading to the rebel leader’s home town of Tral in south Kashmir have been closed and authorities have seized thousands of motorbikes to prevent people travelling between villages in the area.

Witnesses and police said clashes broke out when protesters tried to reach the family home on Saturday morning and were blocked by government forces.

Police fired tear gas cannisters when protesters threw rocks at them — an increasingly common tactic in the region.

Wani’s father said there was a huge military presence outside the family home.

“There were so many soldiers outside I couldn’t go out. It wasn’t possible for me to visit my son’s grave today,” Muzzafar Wani told AFP by phone.

– Cross-border shelling –

The anniversary comes at a time of heightened tensions along the Line of Control, the de-facto border that divides the disputed Himalayan territory between India and Pakistan.

On Saturday India said a soldier who was home on leave and his wife had been killed and several other civilians injured in cross-border shelling by Pakistani troops.

Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since 1947, is one of the most heavily militarised spots on Earth with a long history of conflict.

The mountainous region is home to dozens of armed groups fighting for independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan.

But since Wani’s death, civilians have played an increasingly active role in the rebellion against Indian rule.

In parts of south Kashmir — the epicentre of the renewed insurgency — villagers began intervening in anti-militant raids, throwing stones at government forces to create a distraction and give the rebels a chance to flee.

“It is a direct confrontation now,” said Kashmiri historian Sidiq Wahid.

“Public anger and defiance has reached levels never seen in Kashmir before.”

The streets of the main city of Srinagar were deserted on Saturday, with all shops and businesses closed.

One senior police official told AFP authorities had not ordered an official curfew in the city, but had invoked a colonial-era law that bans assembly of more than four people and is often used to prevent rioting.

–AFP