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Saturday December 5th, 2020 3:48AM

No phone calls, no groceries: Kashmir on edge under lockdown

By The Associated Press
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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Tens of thousands of government forces in riot gear patrol Indian-controlled Kashmir. Streets lined with shuttered shops are deserted, steel barricades and razor wire cutting off neighborhoods. An eerie silence is broken by an occasional security vehicle whizzing past or the cawing of crows.

An unprecedented security lockdown amid a near-total communications blackout entered a fourth day Thursday, forcing some news organizations to hand-carry dispatches out of the region.

The lives of millions in India's only Muslim-majority region have been upended since the latest — and most serious — crackdown while New Delhi moved to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgrade the Himalayan region from statehood to a territory. Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, and rebels have been fighting Indian rule in the portion it administers for decades.

In central Srinagar, the region's main city, few pedestrians ventured out of their homes to navigate barbed-wire checkpoints guarded by helmeted soldiers in camouflage, wielding rifles and protective shields.

Shopping malls, grocery stores and even clinics were closed. In previous security clampdowns, neighborhood bodegas had opened their doors for a few hours a day after dark so that people could buy necessities like milk, grains and baby food. It is not clear whether the stores have opened in the current crackdown. Residents are used to stockpiling essentials, a practice they've honed during harsh winter months when roads and communications lines are often snapped.

The communication blackout — with landlines, cellphones and internet all down — means that people within Kashmir can't call one another or speak to friends and relatives outside the region, relying only on limited cable TV and local radio reports.

In a nationally broadcast address Thursday night, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government made the move to free the region of "terrorism and separatism." He added that the situation will soon "return to normal gradually," although he gave no specifics.

At the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital in Srinagar, doctors told The Associated Press on Thursday that at least 50 people had come in with wounds from pellet guns and rubber bullets, the ammunition security forces often use to disperse protests.

Razir Mir, 32, described hearing a loud bang on Monday and opening his front door to find his wife, Rabiya, "face down on the street. Blood was pouring from her eyes," he said.

Rabiya, who was left with blurred vision, said that after hearing the government's announcement that Kashmir's special status had been stripped, she thought to buy vegetables, anticipating a long curfew period in Srinagar.

"The moment I came out from my house, the soldiers out there shot at my direction," she said, as the couple's 2-year-old cried.

Rubeena Mehraj from central Kashmir was convalescing at the hospital after giving birth.

"When I called for an ambulance, I started traveling to Srinagar because I was expecting, but the ambulance was stopped at so many (checkpoints) along the route that I gave birth inside the vehicle," Mehraj said.

Outside the busy hospital, people struggled to communicate with family and neighbors.

A woman peering out of a window asked a group of reporters if they could find out about a sick person from a family living nearby. "We've no contact," the middle-aged woman said before she could give her name as soldiers ordered journalists to move on.

No news was coming from elsewhere in the tense region.

Police and paramilitary officials enforcing the restrictions said they were clueless about how long the curfew would continue. "We know only about what's going on in the street we're deployed. We don't know how it is in the next street," said a police official in Srinagar's city center who could not be named in accordance with standard practice.

No official briefings for journalists were held nor curfew passes issued to any, a departure from previous security clampdowns.

Many local police officials expressed fury that they were left out of any decision-making, ratcheting up friction between local Kashmiri police and Indian soldiers on the ground.

On Sunday, in the run-up to India's decision to revoke Kashmir's autonomy, the top commander of the largest rebel group, Reyaz Naikoo, in an audio statement called local police to "redeem" themselves by refusing to enforce New Delhi's orders.

"India can make changes on paper, but they can't change our sentiments for freedom," said Naikoo, the operations commander of Hizbul Mujahideen. "India has embarked upon plans to change Kashmir's demography, but India is fighting a lost war. They're here by deceit and deception."

Kashmir's fury at Indian rule is not new. Its roots lie in a broken promise of a U.N.-administered referendum guaranteed shortly after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947. The nuclear-armed neighbors have been unable to resolve their competing claims on the territory divided between them.

The Indian side has experienced several separatist movements since then, including a bloody rebellion begun in 1989 to demand independence or a merger with Pakistan. Over 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the subsequent brutal military crackdown.

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