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Tens of thousands march in Kashmir protest

Tens of thousands of Muslims marched in Kashmir in honor of a prominent separatist leader killed in a recent wave of violence that has rocked the region.

india Updated: Aug 16, 2008 12:08 IST

Tens of thousands of Muslims marched in 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 by police firing into a crowd of protesters. On Saturday, security forces kept their distance from the demonstrators to avoid provoking another deadly clash. The protesters were heading to Aziz's hometown of Pampur, 15 kilometers south of Srinagar.

The march comes a day after the India's Independence Day holiday, which Kashmir observed as a "black day" by burning Indian flags and effigies of Indian soldiers.

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 (40 hectares) 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 symbolise the "total rejection of India's rule in Kashmir."

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.