14 killed in Kashmir as Indian forces, protesters battle

At least 14 people were reportedly killed Monday and dozens injured in clashes with security forces in an Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, police said, as protesters set fire to several government buildings and a private school.

The demonstrations were sparked in part by an inaccurate report that a Florida pastor had made good on his threat to burn the Koran on Saturday. But the major cause was long-standing discontent over Indian rule of the contested region and the use of lethal force by police and paramilitary units against stone-throwing protesters in previous clashes.

“Kashmir was a volcano that was dormant since 1947,” said Javed Ahmad Dar, 25, a literature student. “Now it has exploded.”

The day’s violence, the worst since separatist demonstrations erupted in June, brings the death toll to at least 80 in the last three months.

Security forces say the protests are sparked or influenced by militants, justifying the use of lethal force in response.

Monday’s unrest came as an Indian Cabinet committee held an inconclusive three-hour meeting in New Delhi to consider a political package for the volatile region and a partial rollback of India’s controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act. That law gives the army near-blanket immunity against prosecution for actions it takes in the troubled region. Security forces oppose curtailment of their power.

Even if an agreement is reached, it is unlikely to ease anger in the Kashmir Valley, some said.

“The armed forces act is not the root cause,” said Mohammad Ashraf Wani, a professor at Kashmir University. “Until the root cause is addressed, the underlying political problem, I don’t see an end to the unrest.”

Local television video showed hundreds of young men defying a curfew, many brandishing sticks and stones as they razed a tin-sheeted structure.

Demonstrators also set fire to a development office, local news media reported, as well as a court building, an official’s vehicle and residence, a social welfare office and two tourism kiosks. They also reportedly attacked a police station, at which point security forces fired on the crowd, injuring more than a dozen people.

The state government banned an international news channel, Press TV, after it aired video of a man damaging a Koran in Tennessee, an incident distinct from Florida preacher Terry Jones’ canceled threat to burn the Koran on Saturday.

In New Delhi, U.S. Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer expressed dismay over the violence in Kashmir after reports of “a misguided individual desecrating the Koran.”

Aasif Sultan, 23, a protester, said rolling back the armed forces act in quieter areas of Kashmir would be a useful start. A bigger problem, he added, was that India and Pakistan all too often argue over Kashmir without listening to the concerns of those actually living there.

“If India says it is a democracy, then why not let us protest?” Sultan said. “When they stop us, we throw stones, and then they fire at us.”

Wasim Khalid, a reporter for the Rising Kashmir newspaper, said journalists were unable to do their job Monday after the government imposed an embargo on local reporting. “The curfew is so strict, even ambulances can’t go,” he said. “There is so much anger.”

In Kashmir’s Baramulla district, traditionally one of the area’s more volatile, protesters reportedly set fire to a private school run by a Christian group, apparently in anger over the Koran-burning rumors.

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.