Soldiers and police fired at Muslim protesters demanding an end to Indian rule in Kashmir as authorities arrested top separatist leaders in a bid to quash unrest that has left at least 39 people dead since June.
The five latest deaths came late Sunday in Srinagar, Kashmir's main city, and Monday in two towns and one village when security forces confronted angry protesters defying a curfew in the Kashmir Valley, the Muslim heart of India's Jammu and Kashmir state. At least 38 people with bullet injuries were hospitalized in Srinagar during daylong street protests, doctors said. The state government said in a statement that soldiers opened fire Monday after they were shot at by protesters, who wounded two soldiers and two police in Hajin, a village nearly 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Srinagar. At least 17 protesters were believed to have been wounded.
Separatist groups organizing the protests have repeatedly said such accusations are an attempt by authorities to justify the use of force against unarmed civilians.
In a telephone call to a local news agency, Current New Service, a man identifying himself as Abdullah Gaznavi and a spokesman for militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyeba condemned the arrest of separatist leaders.
"If atrocities against people of Kashmir are not stopped, the situation in India will change adversely for which the Indian government will solely be responsible," Gaznavi told the news agency.
Kashmir's crisis began in June when Muslims launched protests complaining that a government decision to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in Kashmir was actually a settlement plan meant to alter the religious balance in the region. After the plan was rescinded, Hindus took to the streets of Jammu, a predominantly Hindu city, demanding it be restored.
The unrest has unleashed pent-up tensions between Kashmir's Muslims and Hindus and has threatened to snap the bonds between India and its only Muslim-majority state.
There was more unrest Monday in Jammu, where police fired tear gas to disperse thousands of stone-throwing Hindu protesters, police said.
In an effort to head off Monday's protests, authorities arrested two prominent separatist leaders, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, in pre-dawn raids, police said. Another separatist leader, Mohammed Yasin Malik, was arrested later Monday for defying the curfew when he tried to march to the center of Srinagar. Kashmir has been divided between Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan since 1947 when the two fought their first war over the region in the aftermath of Britain's bloody partition of the subcontinent. Both countries continue to claim Kashmir in its entirety.
Separatist movements were mostly peaceful until the start of an Islamic insurgency in 1989. The rebels want to see India's part of the region merged with Pakistan or given independence. At least 68,000 people have been killed in the fighting.