updated 8/16/2008 1:32:18 PM ET 2008-08-16T17:32:18

Tens of thousands of Muslims marched in India's portion of Kashmir on Saturday in honor of a prominent separatist leader killed in a recent wave of violence that has rocked the volatile Himalayan region.

The streets were a sea of black protest flags and Islamic green flags as demonstrators filled Srinagar, the region's main city, and headed south to the hometown of Sheikh Abdul Aziz.

Aziz, the leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, was shot Monday when Indian forces fired into a crowd of protesters.

On Saturday, security forces kept their distance from the demonstrators to avoid provoking another deadly clash.

The protesters chanted "We want freedom" as they marched to Aziz's hometown of Pampore, about nine miles south of Srinagar.

"This is a march for freedom, a march for honor, and a march against occupation," said Manzoor Ahmed, who waved a green flag from atop a bus that was surrounded by the crowd of protesters.

In speeches to the crowds gathered at Pampore, separatist leaders demanded that Indian forces leave Kashmir and allow free movement and trade with the Pakistani portion of Kashmir.

Violent clashes
More than six weeks of unrest in Indian-administered Kashmir has pitted the region's Muslim majority against its Hindu minority and left at least 34 people dead, many of them protesters shot during violent clashes with police and soldiers.

Villages have been attacked, police stations torched and, in at least one town, security forces were ordered to shoot on sight any protesters violating the curfew.

The crisis began in June with a dispute over land near a Hindu shrine. The Hindu minority was angered when the state government reversed a decision to give 99 acres of land to a Hindu trust to build facilities for pilgrims near the shrine. Muslims had complained that the gift of land was actually a settlement plan meant to alter the religious balance in the region.

The spiraling unrest has unleashed pent-up tensions between Kashmir's Muslims and Hindus and threatened to snap the bonds between India and its only Muslim-majority state.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Friday for an end to the protests and violence, saying "all issues can be resolved only through dialogue and peaceful means."

Singh's call was promptly dismissed by a key Kashmiri separatist leader, Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, who said the protests symbolize the "total rejection of India's rule in Kashmir."

Deep divisions
There is a long history of separatist movements in Kashmir, which has been divided between India and Pakistan since 1948. Most were peaceful until 1989, when a bloody Islamic insurgency began. The insurgents want to see India's part of the region merged with Pakistan or given independence.

The rebellion has so far killed an estimated 68,000 people. India accuses Pakistan of aiding the insurgents — a charge Pakistan denies.

India and Pakistan gained independence when the departing British colonizers split the subcontinent in 1947, sparking one of the most violent upheavals of the 20th century and creating a rivalry that has led to three wars, two of them over Kashmir.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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