India intensifies Kashmir crackdown as tensions continue to rise
'The entire region's peace and security [is] at stake,' Pakistan's foreign minister says
Five people were killed in a gun battle between members of a Pakistani militant group and Indian security forces in disputed Kashmir on Sunday as India intensified a security crackdown, including detaining more than 160 separatists this weekend.
Three members of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — the Pakistan-based group that claimed a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police — died in the shootout, as did a senior police officer and an Indian army soldier, according to the Indian military and police.
Three more soldiers were wounded in the battle in Turigam, a village in South Kashmir's Kulgam district, defence and police officials said. Two of the dead militants were from India, and one a foreigner, said a senior police officer who asked not to be identified.
Indian authorities have killed at least eight JeM militants and detained around 50 militants, sympathizers and their relatives since the bomb attack, which also sparked the roundup of separatists which India says is needed to head off trouble ahead of a general election to be held by May.
Most of those rounded up over the last two days were linked to the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI).
"Since JeI has a wider network across Kashmir and they are mobilizing anti-India protests, their arrest could help in curbing such protests ahead of elections," the senior police officer said.
One well-known separatist leader, Abdul Gani Bhat, was placed under house arrest, according to his political party.
Separatists called a strike to protest against the detentions. Many shops, petrol stations and businesses closed, with few people and vehicles on streets in sensitive areas, except for troop patrols.
In some areas of the main city of Srinagar, the government limited the movement of people and vehicles.
"The restrictions have been imposed as a precautionary measure to avoid any untoward incident," the police said.
Blockades, fuel rationing in effect
The government of Jammu and Kashmir said fuel rationing had been introduced in the Kashmir Valley where there was only enough gasoline for one day, diesel for four days and no liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
The government said it would seek to increase supplies to the region and that shortages are the result of road blockages after the suicide bomb attack.
Indian paramilitary troops in riot gear arrived in strength at first light, said Shakeel Ahmad, a resident of Nowhatta in the Srinagar district.
"At places, they have blocked the main roads with steel barricades and concertina wire," he said.
State Governor Satya Pal Malik called on residents not to believe "rumours of any extreme nature." The government said an increase in police numbers was to prevent candidates and voters from being intimidated into not standing or voting in the general election.
Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who chairs the Hurriyat Conference of separatist groups, said arbitrary arrests and jailing of leaders, activists and young people for their political beliefs had happened across Kashmir for 30 years.
"Intimidating activists and leadership will not deter them from their path, nor will it stop people from demanding the resolution of the Kashmir dispute through self-determination," he said.
Reuters' telephone calls to the Indian home ministry to seek comment went unanswered.
The suicide bomb attack has raised tensions between India and Pakistan, which both claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part. India blames Pakistan for harbouring militant groups operating in Kashmir, which Pakistan denies.
After the attack, India dropped trade privileges for Pakistan and prepared to send as many as 10,000 more troops to the contested area, according to a home ministry letter seen by Reuters.
The Indian army said that early on Sunday evening Pakistan violated the two nations' ceasefire at the Rajouri area of the border, through shelling from mortars and small arms fire. Defence spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Devender Anand said the Indian army was "retaliating strongly and effectively".
Ceasefire violations are not unusual along the border.
A Pakistani security official said Pakistani forces had not initiated any action but had responded to Indian firing.
Kashmir is likely to be a key issue in India's election, distracting from concerns about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have managed the economy.
Modi has promised a strong response to the attack, saying in a monthly radio broadcast on Sunday that it had caused anguish to all of India.
Modi added that the army had vowed to destroy the militants and those who helped them.
Islamabad has warned it would respond with "full force" if attacked. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi called on India to show restraint or it would put "the entire region's peace and security at stake."
India's Supreme Court will hear a case this week seeking to drop a constitutional provision that bars non-residents from moving to the state of Jammu and Kashmir that encompasses the Muslim-majority region.
If passed, it could further escalate tensions.