Government forces fired shotgun bullets and tear gas to disperse hundreds of Muslims, mostly Shiites, participating in a Muharram procession in Indian-administered Kashmir, injuring dozens of people, witnesses said.
The violence came as the disputed Himalayan region – where nearly 97% of the residents are Muslims – observed Ashoura on Saturday, the 10th day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar.
Jafar Ali, a witness, told AFP news that the procession had started in the Bemina district on the outskirts of the main city of Srinagar and that government forces were present in very large numbers.
Ali and others who witnessed the clashes said security forces fired pellets and tear gas to disrupt the rally. Police said the mourners had violated prohibition orders that restrict all religious processions to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
“The forces fired pellets at the procession, which was mostly peaceful and included women,” said another witness Iqbal Ahmad.
At least 40 people were injured, witnesses said. Medical staff at a Srinagar hospital told The Associated Press they had treated at least 30 people, some of whom were injured by pellets and tear gas.
# Kashmir: A young Kashmiri Shia Muslim lies on a hospital bed with bullets fired by government forces today during the Muharram procession in Srinagar. pic.twitter.com/6BEVwh9B59
– Ahmer Khan (@ahmermkhan) August 29, 2020
Residents said many more injured were taken to another hospital in the city.
Videos circulating on social media showed police officers in armed vehicles warning mourners to disperse before firing shotgun pellets and tear gas at them.
Mourners have also been seen raising slogans to end Indian rule in the disputed region.
“The procession was not only peaceful, but also followed health protocols,” said Sajjad Hussain, a witness. “They [government forces] unleashed such violence and did not spare even grieving women. ”
A police officer told The Associated Press they were confirming the number of injuries.
Several processions attacked
Muharram is one of the holiest days for Muslims around the world and features large processions of mainly Shia mourners who slap their chests while reciting elegies and chanting slogans to denounce the massacre of Husayn the little one. son of the Prophet Muhammad, and his companions.
Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have halted several Muharram processions this week.
Officials said at least 200 people were arrested in Srinagar for participating in the processions and at least seven people were arrested under an anti-terrorism law for throwing slogans in favor of freedom.
Some main Muharram processions have been banned in the predominantly Muslim region since an armed rebellion erupted in 1989 to demand Indian independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan.
But Muslims in Kashmir have long complained that the Indian administration was restricting their religious freedom under the guise of law and order while promoting an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Himalayan Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Seven rebels presumed killed
The violence in Srinagar came shortly after officials said at least seven suspected rebels and an Indian army soldier were killed in two gunfire, also in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Three rebels and a soldier died early Saturday after troops and police launched a search operation in a village in the south of Pulwama district, said Colonel Rajesh Kalia, spokesman for the Indian army.
Joint armed forces, paramilitary and police teams on Friday cordoned off a village in southern Shopian district after learning rebels were hiding there, leading to an exchange of fire, police said.
Four rebels were killed and another arrested during the operation, according to a police statement.
Vijay Kumar, the inspector general of police, told reporters that one of the dead in Friday’s shooting was the district commander of the rebel group Al-Badr.
Conditions have worsened in Indian-administered Kashmir since August last year, when New Delhi stripped the region of its state and semi-autonomy, unleashing widespread anger and economic ruin under severe security repression.
Since January, Indian forces have killed 180 rebels in counterinsurgency operations, according to the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a rights group.
According to official figures, data shows that more than half of them joined the rebels less than a year ago, and of them, most had only been active for a few months.
At least 68 government forces and 46 civilians were also killed during the same period, the rights group said.
India and Pakistan claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety. A small part of the region is also controlled by China.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.
According to several human rights groups, nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 1989.