SRINAGAR, India – Hundreds of protesters in Indian-administered Kashmir clashed with police Friday, August 16, as the UN Security Council began its first meeting on the territory in nearly half a century, with tensions soaring over New Delhi's move to strip the disputed region of its autonomy.
The meeting began as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke with US President Donald Trump, who last month controversially offered to mediate in the seven-decade old Kashmir dispute between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan.
New Delhi ended the autonomous status of its portion of the Muslim-majority territory in the first week of August, stepping up movement restrictions and cutting off phone and internet access to head off civil unrest, and igniting calls from Pakistan for the international community to intervene.
Police fired tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns to disperse residents who tried to march down the main road in the main city of Srinagar after Friday prayers.
Protesters hurled stones and used shop hoardings and tin sheets as improvised shields, as police shot dozens of rounds into the crowd. No injuries were reported.
"We are trying to breach the siege and march to the city center but police is using force to stop us," one protester told Agence France-Presse.
Friday's Security Council meeting in New York – the first to discuss Kashmir since 1972 – came as Khan spoke to Trump by telephone to express his concerns over India's actions, according to Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
"A good discussion took place between both leaders and it was decided that they will remain in constant contact," he said in Islamabad.
During a meeting with Khan in July, Trump said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to help mediate the Kashmir dispute – a claim Delhi strenuously denied.
India has always insisted the Kashmir issue can only be resolved bilaterally with Pakistan.
Kashmir has been divided between the two countries since independence, and has been the spark for two major wars and countless clashes between the two nuclear-armed arch-rivals.
Earlier this year they came close to all-out conflict yet again, after a militant attack in Indian-held Kashmir in February was claimed by a group based in Pakistan, igniting tit-for-tat air strikes.
Sporadic clashes were reported Friday in other parts of the Kashmir Valley, the main hotbed of resistance to Indian rule for decades.
Major towns and cities in the valley remained under curfew, with government forces allowing people to move only on special passes.
Government forces erected steep barricades and used concertina wires to block roads.
No big gatherings were allowed in the valley and most mosques were shut for the second consecutive Friday.
The protesters marched along the lanes of Srinagar, carrying black ﬂags – signifying grief – and placards with slogans including "Go India, go back."
- Phone lines -
Friday's clashes took place as a top official said that authorities would begin restoring phone lines in Kashmir on Friday evening, including in Srinagar.
Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary BVR Subrahmanyam did not make clear whether mobile phones and internet connections would also be reinstated.
He said the restoration would "(keep) in mind the constant threat posed by terrorist organizations."
Fearing an angry and potentially violent response to its move to end Kashmir's autonomous status, India deployed 10,000 additional troops – joining the half a million already there – severely restricted movement and cut telecommunications.
Kashmiri politicians – alongside university professors, business leaders and activists – are among the more than 500 people that have since been taken into custody.
Despite the lockdown, last Friday residents said some 8,000 people took to the streets and that the military used pellet-firing shotguns.
The Indian government confirmed the clashes only after several days had passed, blaming them on stone-throwing "miscreants" and saying its forces reacted with "restraint."
Tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, have died in an uprising against Indian rule that has raged since 1989. – Rappler.com