August 4, 2019 / 12:20 PM / 17 days ago

Kashmir turmoil rises as India restricts movement, regional leaders fear arrest

SRINAGAR/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The disputed region of Kashmir was thrown into further turmoil in the early hours of Monday as regional leaders said they feared being arrested and Indian officials imposed restrictions in the city of Srinagar and suspended mobile data services in parts of the state.

Boatmen chat near parked 'Shikaras' or boats for tourists on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar August 4, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Tensions in Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan, had risen since Friday when local Indian officials issued an alert over possible militant attacks by Pakistan-based groups. Pakistan has rejected those assertions, but thousands of Indian tourists, pilgrims and workers left the region in panic over the weekend.

“As per the order there shall be no movement of public and all educational institutions shall also remain closed (in the district of Srinagar),” Indian authorities said in an order, saying the restrictions were being imposed starting at midnight.

“There will be a complete bar on holding any kind of public meetings or rallies during the period of operation of this order,” authorities said, adding restrictions would remain in effect until revoked by further orders.

The situation has been aggravated as some regional leaders have expressed fears that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government may try to withdraw decades-old special rights conferred on the state, including an amendment to the Indian constitution that prevents people from outside the state from buying property there.

There have also been concerns that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could move to abolish Kashmir’s autonomous status, a plan that has in the past provoked warnings of a backlash in the Muslim-majority state.

The state has been under New Delhi’s rule since last year after Modi’s BJP withdrew from a coalition with a local party.

A spokesman for India’s home ministry in New Delhi did not immediately respond to a request for comment outside regular business hours.

On Sunday, regional parties met and vowed to safeguard the special status, saying any move to strip the privilege would amount to aggression against the people of the state.

“I believe I’m being placed under house arrest from midnight tonight & the process has already started for other mainstream leaders. No way of knowing if this is true,” Omar Abdullah, the state’s former chief minister, said on Twitter, while appealing to people to stay calm.

Mehbooba Mufti, another regional leader and Modi’s former ally, said on Twitter it was “ironic that elected representatives like us who fought for peace are under house arrest. The world watches as people & their voices are being muzzled.”

Three local government officials told Reuters that mobile internet services in the region had been suspended.

BROADER TENSIONS

Kashmir has long been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Tensions flared after a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into an Indian police convoy on Feb. 14, killing 40 paramilitary police, and leading to aerial clashes between the two nations.

India accuses Pakistan of funding armed militants and separatist groups in India’s portion of the region. Islamabad denies the Indian accusation, saying it provides only diplomatic and moral support to a separatist movement.

Tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have the potential to become a regional crisis and it is the right time for U.S. President Donald Trump to mediate, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said on Sunday.

Khan spoke a day after Pakistan accused India of using illegal cluster bombs, killing two civilians and wounding 11, in the disputed Kashmir region. India denied it had used such weapons.

India’s foreign affairs ministry and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Khan’s remarks.

In July, Trump told reporters that Modi had asked him if he would like to be a mediator on Kashmir. India denied Modi ever asked for any mediation.

India has long rejected any suggestion of third-party involvement and said it would deal with Pakistan only bilaterally.

On Sunday, even before restrictions were imposed in Srinagar city, Kashmir remained on high alert as Indian para-military forces were deployed across major towns.

Hospitals were on alert too, with staff told not to leave the city without permission, officials said.

Slideshow (6 Images)

The local government said on Friday it had intelligence about militant attacks and called off a major Hindu pilgrimage, asking pilgrims and tourists to return home.

Kashmir touts itself as a “Paradise on Earth”, with its Dal Lake, famous houseboats and mountains among major attractions.

Britain and Germany have discouraged their citizens from visiting, but around 160 foreign tourists arrived on Saturday, one official said.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Fayaz Bukhari; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; Writing by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Euan Rocha and Grant McCool

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