Attacks in Kashmir Leave 91 Dead
PAHALGAM, India (AP) _ A wave of violence that began with an attack by suspected Islamic guerrillas left 91 people dead in less than 24 hours in Kashmir, the Himalayan province disputed by India and Pakistan, police and witnesses said Wednesday.
Indian officials quickly blamed guerrillas for the deaths, while witnesses said some of those killed were the victims of reprisal shootings by Indian forces.
In the first and worst attack, gunmen opened fire Tuesday evening on unarmed Hindu pilgrims and Muslim porters on their way to a revered religious shrine near Pahalgam, 55 miles south of Kashmir’s summer capital, Srinagar.
Officials said the death toll in that shooting rose to 33 on Wednesday morning, with 40 injured. Shops were looted in the aftermath and people wandered around wailing as they searched for relatives and friends. Bloodstains could be seen on the wooden bridges over the ice-blue Lidder River.
``We had seen this only in the movies,″ said G.L. Atri, a devotee who saw the killings. ``Four people were killed in front of me.″
It was the latest incident in years of bloodshed in Kashmir, a mountainous province divided between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. The nations have fought two wars over Kashmir, and a number of Muslim guerrilla groups on the Indian side have been fighting for 11 years to separate the region from Indian control.
The violence has killed more than 25,000 people.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed Pakistan-backed guerrilla groups for the latest attacks, saying they were reprisals against a July 17 cease-fire declared by the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, the main guerrilla group seeking Kashmir’s separation from India. Other militant groups expressed anger at the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen after the cease-fire, saying it should keep fighting.
``It is clear that after Hezb-ul Mujahedeen’s step and talks of a cease-fire, militant groups directed by Pakistan have decided to step up the attacks,″ Vajpayee told the lower house of Parliament.
Though Vajpayee and local officials blamed guerrillas, witnesses and survivors of the shooting that killed the 33 pilgrims and porters said Indian paramilitary police and soldiers were responsible for many of the deaths.
``I saw two men in a Kashmir police uniform who started firing from a bridge and on the bus,″ said bus driver Balbir Singh, who had brought pilgrims to Pahalgam. ``I saw two Hindu priests killed before me, and two other men.″
A forest guard, Farookh Ahmed, was one of several people who said officers of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force killed civilians and dragged people out of tents to beat or shoot them in revenge for the militant attack.
``The CRPF men forced us out and started shooting at us,″ Ahmed said. ``I ducked and survived, two were killed in front of me, two were injured. Tourists (Hindu pilgrims) were not brought out and we were because we are Kashmiris.″
There have been several previous cases when police in Kashmir have blamed militants for attacks despite witnesses’ insistence that it was government forces who did the killing. Ashok Bhan, the Kashmir police commander, said ``there could be a few cases″ of CRPF attacks on civilians.
``This cannot be ruled out,″ he said. ``But there is no evidence that there was any excessive use of force by the CRPF.″
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry condemned the killings, saying that ``on previous occasions, terrorist acts aimed at civilians have been carried out by renegade elements at the behest of Indian security forces to malign the Kashmiri freedom struggle internationally.″
Five attacks were reported Wednesday across the province.
Gunmen killed 12 people in the Hindu-dominated village of Pogal and two Hindus in the adjoining village of Danvata, said police in Jammu, Kashmir’s winter capital. Gunmen also stormed two houses in the nearby village of Hansraj Top and killed five people.
Villagers armed by the government staved off a militant attack on Keyar village, but the guerrillas returned to kill eight people in the remote, densely forested area, police said.
In the town of Kalaroos, armed men killed five relatives in the home of a police officer trained to fight militants, police said.
On Tuesday evening, guerrillas swooped down on the Mir Bazar village near Anantnag, forcing people out of their homes and separating women and children from the men, said a police spokesman in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital. The men _ brick factory workers who had migrated from other Indian states _ were lined up and shot, police said. They said 19 people were killed.
In Achchabal, militants stormed into houses and killed seven migrant laborers from eastern Bihar state, police said.