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Guerrillas, Police Battle In Kashmir Shrine, At Least Three Killed

March 24, 1996

NEW DELHI, India (AP) _ A furious gun battle between troops and separatist guerrillas in Kashmir’s holiest shrine Sunday killed at least three people and raised fears of a widespread public uprising.

Guerrillas have occupied the white marble, onion-domed mosque in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, for more than a year. But until now, security forces had avoided fighting in the ancient Hazratbal mosque, which holds a sacred relic that Muslims believe is a hair of the Prophet Mohammed.

Police and guerrillas of the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front gave different versions of how Sunday’s fighting started.

Rebels said local police tried to enter the mosque with weapons, firing on guerrillas who tried to stop them. But a spokesman for police, also Kashmiri Muslims, said guerrillas attacked first.

The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said two police and one guerrilla were killed. But a rebel, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said nine separatist fighters were killed, including Basharat Raza, the group’s commander-in-chief, and his deputy.

Guerrillas in Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in mostly Hindu India, are fighting to secede and either form an independent nation or join with neighboring Pakistan. More than 12,000 people have been killed in the violence since 1989.

Leaders of the Liberation Front faction occupying the mosque had made speeches during Friday prayers exhorting Kashmiris to rise against Indian troops.

Sunday’s fighting came at a time when some Kashmiri separatists are holding talks with federal and state officials to end the insurgency and work out a political solution.

New tensions could jeopardize efforts to hold voting in the state in May to elect representatives to the federal parliament.

To prevent a mass uprising against troops for fighting in the holy shrine, Indian soldiers surrounded the mosque later Sunday and patrolled a nearby neighborhood with automatic rifles.

Guerrillas had occupied the shrine in 1993 and held 36 civilians hostage there. The crisis was resolved peacefully after a month-long siege by the military.

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