(Recasts with higher number of protesters, adds quotes,
By Sheikh Mushtaq
SRINAGAR, India Aug 22 Waving green Islamic
flags and shouting "we want freedom", hundreds of thousands of
Muslims marched peacefully in Indian Kashmir's main city on
Friday, resuming some of the biggest protests in two decades
against Indian rule.
Hundreds of trucks and buses brought the protesters, many
of them sitting on roofs and hanging out of windows, for an
independence rally addressed by separatist leaders.
"There is no God but Allah" and "Indian forces go back",
the protesters shouted.
What began as a dispute over land for Hindu pilgrims
visiting a shrine in Kashmir snowballed into full-scale
anti-India protests this month, boosting separatists who want
India's only Muslim-majority region to secede.
Police and soldiers dressed in battle gear patrolled the
streets as about 350,000 protesters arrived from nearby towns
and villages, officials said.
"Today's rally is a referendum that Kashmiris want their
inalienable right to self-determination," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq,
chairman of All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, said in
his address to the crowd.
Thousands of people lined both sides of the road cheering
protesters and offering them food, water and juice.
Police have killed at least 23 Muslim protesters and more
than 500 have been injured in clashes in two weeks of
demonstrations in Kashmir Valley. Protests were halted for
three days, until Friday, to allow Kashmiris to stock up on
The protests are some of the biggest since a separatist
revolt against Indian rule broke out in the region in 1989.
Tens of thousands of people were killed in that revolt.
"I have never seen a larger demonstration in my life," said
protester Abdul Rehman, 90. "It looks Kashmir is drifting away
from India this time."
The crisis has strained relations between India and
Pakistan, who both claim the region in full but rule it in
parts. It has also raised fears of communal tension in the
state, split between the Hindu-majority Jammu region and the
Muslim Kashmir Valley.
MUSLIM VS HINDU
"We appeal to people to march to Eidgah (ground), to
remember and pay homage to martyrs," a joint statement from
Kashmiri separatists said. "And to protest Indian occupation
and pray for Kashmir's secession."
Eidgah, a sprawling ground for mass Eid prayers, lies in
central Srinagar adjacent to a "martyrs' graveyard", a cemetery
where militants and civilians are among those buried.
The dispute began after the state government promised to
give forest land to the Hindu trust that runs the cave shrine
of Amarnath. Many Muslims were enraged, leading the state
government to rescind its decision.
That in turn angered Hindus in Jammu, where thousands have
protested the rescinding of the land order and criticised the
government for "pandering to separatists".
At least 10 people have also been killed in weeks of
protests Jammu, where Hindus attacked trucks carrying supplies
to the Kashmir Valley and often blocked the region's highway,
the only surface link with the rest of India.
Kashmiri Muslims, challenging what they said was an
economic blockade, then took to the streets to protest.
Adding to tension in the region, India has criticised
Pakistan for interfering in its internal affairs by calling for
U.N. intervention in Kashmir.
A wave of bomb attacks elsewhere in India last month and
the Kashmir protests have also threatened a four-year-old peace
process between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.
Two militants and an Indian soldier were killed on Friday
in a gun battle near the U.N.-monitored ceasefire line with
Pakistan that splits Kashmir.
Militant violence has fallen in recent years but people are
still killed in near daily gun battles and bomb attacks in
(Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and David Fogarty)
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