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Police try to foil Shi'ite gatherings in Kashmir amid COVID curbs

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Police sealed off parts of Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar on Friday to stop Shi’ite Muslims from gathering during their mourning month of Muharram amid the coronavirus outbreak and detained at least 50 people.

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Kashmir authorities have this year banned Muharram gatherings, in which worshippers flog themselves with steel-tipped flails or slash their bodies with knives, to mourn Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.

Shi’ite crowds tried to gather in parts of Srinagar, but some were thwarted by police roadblocks and by officers searching vehicles and others chanting slogans were chased down by police.

“At least 50 mourners were detained in Srinagar who defied the restrictions,” a police officer said. Some scuffled with police before they were taken away.

Before the coronavirus curbs, Kashmir was already under heavy security since last year when the federal government revoked its special status and statehood, causing anger in the revolt-torn Muslim majority region.

Kashmir is claimed in whole by India and neighbouring foe Pakistan and is ruled in part by both amid regular outbreaks of cross-border clashes.

Indian security forces killed four militants, including a top commander of the Al-Badr militant group, south of Srinagar, Kashmir valley’s police chief, Vijay Kumar, told Reuters.

The militants had earlier this week abducted a village council member, whose body was discovered on Friday, Kumar said.

Police and witnesses said some people taking part in the Muharram processions on the outskirts of Srinagar shouted anti-India slogans earlier in the week.

“There is usually a procession on Muharram but they have put a lot of restrictions this year. All the roads are shut near Lal Chowk (Red Square) ... There are no public transports and shops are also shut. It feels like a curfew,” a resident who gave his name as Mohammad said.

Protests by Kashmir’s 1.4 million Shi’ite Muslims are rare. The 31-year revolt against Indian rule in the territory has been led by Sunni Muslim militants.

But this year, Shi’ite youths have been vocal about alleged human rights violations by Indian security forces, said senior Shi’ite leader Maulana Masroor Abbas Ansari.

Kumar said two people were detained for anti-India slogans during the Muharram processions earlier in the week.

“We will book and act against all those people who have taken part in such processions at other places,” Kumar said.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Alison Williams and Nick Macfie

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