Indian forces fought Kashmiri demonstrators in street battles that killed 15 people — including one police officer — in the deadliest day in a summer of violence challenging Indian rule in the disputed territory.
Reports of a Quran desecration in the United States intensified the anger, with activists chanting "Down with America" and burning an effigy of President Barack Obama in a rare anti-U.S. protest here.
The spasm of violence Monday came even as Indian officials debated whether to make goodwill gestures to try to ease tensions in the war-wracked region, which is divided between India and Pakistan and fully claimed by both.
Since 1989, a violent, separatist insurgency and the ensuing crackdown by Indian forces have killed an estimated 68,000 people. Although the armed rebellion is largely suppressed, the region remains heavily militarized, with checkpoints along main roads, hundreds of thousands of troops stationed here and harsh emergency laws still in force, creating further friction with the restive population.
In the past three summers, the mainly Muslim protesters have taken to the streets to throw stones and demand that the Himalayan region be given independence from Hindu-dominated India or be allowed to merge with predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
Despite a rigid curfew after a weekend of violence, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets Monday, throwing rocks, torching government buildings and a Christian school, and chanting, "Go India, go back. We want freedom."
Security forces shot at crowds in about a dozen different places, killing 13 people and wounding 45 others, said Kuldeep Khoda, the director-general of the state police.
A teenage boy was killed later when troops opened fire in the southern town of Anantnag, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
While separatists had planned a new round of demonstrations following the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this weekend, Monday's crowds appeared larger and more intense than other recent protests and the demonstrations appeared more widespread.
The protesters were inflamed by reports on the Iranian state-run channel Press TV that the Quran was desecrated over the weekend in the United States, Khoda said.
Although a Florida pastor called off his plans to burn the Muslim holy book on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the channel showed footage of a different man destroying a Quran in Tennessee. Most broadcasters around the world did not prominently report on scattered desecration incidents by a handful of fringe anti-Muslim activists in the United States; the Iranian broadcaster carried the footage repeatedly.
The demonstrators chanted "Down with Quran desecrators," and protest leaders denounced the alleged desecration in speeches to the crowds. There were also shouts of "Down with America" and "Down with Israel" — rarely heard in Kashmir, where anger is normally only directed at India.
As the protests worsened, the Iranian station was removed from local cable networks at the insistence of Kashmiri authorities.
U.S. Ambassador Timothy Roemer said the U.S. government was "dismayed" by reports of the rioting and appealed for calm. He also condemned any Quran desecration as "disrespectful, intolerant, divisive and unrepresentative of American values. The deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act."
In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India was searching for a peaceful resolution to the summer of conflict.
"We are willing to talk to every person or group which abjures violence, within the framework of our constitution," Singh said in a speech to top army commanders.
His statement came hours ahead of a meeting of top Cabinet ministers that was expected to decide whether to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act — which gives sweeping powers to security forces in Kashmir — as a goodwill gesture in parts of the territory that have been relatively peaceful.
A statement issued after the Cabinet ministers' meeting did not mention the act, suggesting no decision was made.
Some government officials strongly oppose the move as premature, pointing to the weekend violence as justification for intensifying the crackdown.
The region has been roiled for months by protests that often descend into clashes with government forces. Though Singh has called for the use of non-lethal force, troops have often resorted to firing on the crowds to quell the unrest and have killed at least 84 people this summer — mostly teenage boys and young men in their 20s.
In the village of Tangmarg, 25 miles (45 kilometers) northwest of the main city of Srinagar, troops fired on thousands of rock-throwing demonstrators, killing five people and wounding 50 others, according to police. Earlier, protesters burned at least four government buildings as well as a Christian schoolhouse in the town.
In the western town of Budgam, troops tried dispersing demonstrators with tear gas and baton charges but began firing into the crowd after protesters attacked them and a police station with rocks, police said. At least four people, including a young woman, were killed and at least 30 others were wounded, some critically, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk to the media.
A policeman was also killed during the protests in Budgam after he was hit by a vehicle that then sped away, the officer said.
At least five other protesters were killed in four other towns, the officer said.
A doctor at Srinagar's main hospital said it received at least 25 wounded with bullet injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the government banned health officials from talking to the media.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a key separatist leader, said lifting the security laws would not satisfy Kashmiris. "We want end to Indian occupation here and have already laid out our proposal for initiating a dialogue," he said.