Thousands of Indian traders clash with police

SRINAGAR Mon Aug 11, 2008 8:47pm IST

Indian policemen block a highway to stop Kashmiri demonstrators on a protest march to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, in Srinagar August 11, 2008. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

Indian policemen block a highway to stop Kashmiri demonstrators on a protest march to Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, in Srinagar August 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fayaz Kabli

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SRINAGAR (Reuters) - Thousands of Indian Muslim traders clashed with police stopping them from crossing into Pakistan on Monday to protest what they said was an economic blockade of the region by Hindus over a land row, officials said.

Sheikh Aziz, a senior Kashmiri separatist leader, was among four people killed when police fired on the traders, police and a Reuters photographer said.

A land dispute has polarised Indian Kashmir, split between the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, severely curbing trade between the two areas.

As a result, traders are trying to sell their goods in neighbouring Pakistan.

Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew in Srinagar to thwart further violence.

More than 180 protesters were also wounded when police fired at them. Police closed a highway to Pakistan which the traders tried to use to ferry farm products they said were rotting because of the disruption of trade with the rest of India.

Pakistani police also fired tear gas to stop tens of thousands of people marching towards the border in Pakistani Kashmir to meet the Indian traders, officials and witnesses said.

Pakistani protesters threw rocks at police after barricades were put up to stop them going near the border, police said.

Indian police detained more than 100 fruit growers, deflated the tyres of trucks carrying apples and pears and shut markets in Srinagar, where schools have been closed for the past eight days, a senior police officer said.

Hindus in Jammu, demanding the state government transfer forest land to a Hindu shrine trust, have attacked lorries carrying supplies to the Kashmir valley.

The land row has sparked some of Kashmir's worst religious riots since a separatist Muslim revolt against New Delhi broke out in 1989. At least eight people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests.

On Monday, police fired tear gas shells and bullets to stop thousands of protesters near Baramulla town, 70 km from the de facto border with Pakistan.

"We erected barricades at several places on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road," said Sajjad Ahmad, a senior police officer.

The dispute began after the Kashmir government promised to give forest land to the trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged.

The government then backed down from its decision, which in turn angered many Hindus in Jammu, which has been under curfew for most of the past week.

NO SUPPLIES

In Jammu, shops were shut down by Hindus, as the protests entered the 42nd day on Monday. A nationwide protest called by India's main Hindu-nationalist opposition didn't evoke any response in the rest of the country.

Muslim traders said the Kashmir valley was running short of essentials, including fuel and medicine.

"We have suffered a loss of at least 20 million rupees (about $475,000) since this agitation began," said Mohammad Yousuf, president of Kashmir Fruit Growers Association. "And if the blockade continues it will be a disaster for us."

Police also put top hardline Kashmiri leaders under house arrest from Sunday evening to stop them from leading the traders.

($1 = 42 rupees)

(Additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan in Jammu and Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad)

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