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Saturday March 28th, 2020 5:55AM

Troops let Muslims go to mosques in locked-down Kashmir

By The Associated Press
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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Troops in Indian-administered Kashmir allowed some Muslims to walk to local mosques alone or in pairs Monday for the Eid al-Adha festival during an unprecedented security lockdown in the disputed region that has gone on for eight straight days.

Thousands of additional troops were sent to the disputed Himalayan region before India's Hindu nationalist-led government said Aug. 5 it was revoking Kashmir's special constitutional status and downgrading its statehood. All communications and the internet remained cut off in the Muslim-majority territory to limit protests of the Indian government's decision. Streets were deserted, with most people staying indoors and authorities not allowing large groups to gather.

"Our hearts are on fire," said Habibullah Bhat, 75, who said he came out to pray on the Islamic holy day despite his failing health. "India has thrown us into the dark ages, but God is on our side and our resistance will win."

Hundreds of worshippers gathered on a Srinagar street after the prayers and chanted, "We want freedom" and "Go India, go back," witnesses said. Officials said the protest ended peacefully.

Elsewhere, two people were injured in violent incidents, senior police officer S.P. Pani said. He did not give any details.

Kashmir police said in a tweet that Eid prayers "concluded peacefully in various parts of the (Kashmir) Valley. No untoward incident reported so far." Independent verification of events in the region was difficult because of the communications shutdown.

India's foreign ministry shared photos of people visiting mosques but didn't specify where the photos were taken in the region, which New Delhi downgraded from a state to two federal territories a week ago.

Vijay Keshav Gokhale, the ministry's top diplomat, said communications restrictions "will be gradually eased when we feel the law and order situation improves." He said most mosques were open, but some were not for security reasons.

There were "no reports of starvation" and medical facilities, utilities and banking services were functioning normally, he said.

The lockdown is expected to last through Thursday, India's independence day. The restrictions were briefly eased for Friday prayers last week and for shopping ahead of Eid.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both. The nuclear neighbors and bitter rivals have fought two wars over Kashmir, and the first one ended in 1948 with a promise of a U.N.-sponsored referendum in the territory. It has never been held.

Rebels have been fighting Indian rule for decades in the portion administered by New Delhi.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and opposition leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari expressed support for people in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir to have self-determination. Both visited the Pakistani-controlled portion of Kashmir for Eid.

Qureshi urged the international community to take notice of "Indian atrocities and human rights violations in Kashmir." He said Islamabad was trying its best to highlight the issue internationally and expose Indian "cruelties."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an Aug. 8 address to the nation that the move would free the territory of "terrorism and separatism" and accused Pakistan of fomenting unrest.

Restrictions, security lockdowns and information blackouts are nothing new for Kashmiris. The region saw months of clampdowns during massive uprisings against Indian rule in 2008, 2010 and 2016. However, this is the first time that landline phones have been cut off, intensifying the hardship.

Frequent separatist calls for general strikes and protests are routinely met with lockdowns.

Kashmiris have learned to figure out ways to survive being confined to their homes. They are accustomed to stockpiling essentials, a practice usually undertaken during harsh winter months when roads and communications lines often are down.

More than 1 million people live in the area under security siege in Srinagar, and residents have begun to face shortages of food, prescription drugs and other necessities as shops remain closed and movement is restricted. Parents have struggled to entertain their children who are unable to go to school.

Authorities say they have made cash available in ATMs so that residents could take out money to buy essentials for Eid.

___

Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma and Emily Schmall in New Delhi and Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, contributed.

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