A gunbattle between militants and soldiers erupted in Indian Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar on Wednesday hours before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due to arrive in the disputed region.
A Reuters reporter said there was firing in the heart of the city, near a cricket stadium where Singh was scheduled to address a public meeting later in the day when India also begins withdrawing some troops from the Himalayan territory.
A police officer said the gunbattle began as soldiers surrounded a run-down building after a tip-off that two militants had entered late on Tuesday. The building, a former hotel, overlooks the cricket stadium.
Television footage showed soldiers crouching behind armored jeeps near the site as more troops arrived.
Singh, making a first visit to Kashmir since taking office in May, was due to land at around 10 a.m. (0430 GMT) and then drive to Kashmir’s revered Hazratbal shrine.
Hundreds of soldiers were on the streets of Srinagar, and snipers were on rooftops ahead of Singh’s arrival.
The attack came as New Delhi begins a phased withdrawal of some troops from Kashmir, which Pakistan also claims and has been the cause of two of the three wars between the nuclear-armed neighbors since independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Singh announced the unprecedented cut in troops this month, citing a reduction in an infiltration of militants from the Pakistani part of Kashmir.
Islamabad has welcomed the move, which analysts say has breathed new life into a sluggish peace process between the old foes, who agreed a truce along the ceasefire line that divides Kashmir last year after coming to the brink of war in 2002.
But the main alliance of Kashmiri separatist politicians ruled out meeting the prime minister, and a hardline faction of the alliance has called for a day-long general strike on Wednesday, demanding that Singh apologize for what it said were atrocities committed by Indian soldiers.
“We have nothing personal against Manmohan Singh. But he is visiting Kashmir as the head of a country whose forces are brutalizing Kashmir,” said hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
“If Manmohan Singh is a man with a good heart he should on behalf of the country apologize to Kashmiris for the excesses of the Indian forces,” he said.
Singh, state authorities said, was expected to announce a financial package worth some 40 billion rupees ($888 million) to rebuild damaged infrastructure in the state, improve basic public services and boost the local economy ravaged by violence.
New Delhi-based Colonel Anil Shorey told Reuters on Tuesday the pullout will start on Wednesday with about 20,000 soldiers leaving Kashmir “in a phased manner.”
India has never said how many troops are posted in Kashmir. Newspapers have put the number at up to half a million.
Financial vs. political
Kashmiri separatist groups and local business leaders said Singh would need to do much more than try to buy peace by offering financial incentives.
“It is to be seen whether the PM will come with a financial package or a political package. If it is just a financial package we won’t have anything to do with it,” Maulana Abbas Ansari, a senior leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir’s main political separatist alliance, told Reuters.
He said Singh should allow representatives of Kashmiris to join peace talks between India and Pakistan, make it easier for divided families in Indian and Pakistani Kashmir to meet and prevent rights abuses by Indian forces.
Hurriyat leaders also want to be allowed to visit Pakistan and hold talks with Islamabad before resuming peace talks with New Delhi, stalled since Singh’s government took office in May.
Singh’s trip comes ahead of his meeting next week in New Delhi with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Indian-administered Kashmir has been embroiled in an insurgency since 1989 that has killed nearly 45,000 people according to official figures. India says Pakistan backs the Muslim insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies.