Tens of thousands of soldiers were on patrol in Indian Kashmir today to prevent separatist unrest as polls opened for the final phase of state elections. Voters headed to nearly 2,000 polling booths in Srinagar, the hub of the anti-Indian insurgency, and in the town of Jammu and neighbouring Samba district. About 30,000 soldiers were on patrol in Srinagar and more than 20,000 in Jammu and Samba to prevent militant attacks and anti-election protests by Muslim separatists opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir.
Separatist groups and armed rebels have called for a boycott of the polls, arguing that they strengthen New Delhi's hold over the disputed region. However, the first six rounds of voting saw a turnout of more than 50 per cent in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. The Himalayan region is in the grip of a nearly two-decade old insurgency against Indian rule that has left more than 47,000 people dead, according to official Indian figures.
Kashmir is divided into Indian and Pakistani-controlled zones and has been the trigger for two wars between the South Asian rivals since independence from Britain in 1947. The elections come at the end of a year in which India has been faced with huge pro-independence demonstrations in Kashmir that have left over 50 Muslim protesters dead, many killed when government troops fired to disperse protests.
Small anti-election protests were held overnight in Srinagar, and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah and his politician son Umar Abdullah escaped unhurt when protesters pelted their motorcade with stones, police said. Shops and businesses were shut while streets were empty of traffic. Security was also tight in Jammu after police said they had foiled a major suicide strike with the arrest of three Islamist militants, including a Pakistani soldier.
Under interrogation, the militants said they had been planning to drive a lorry laden with explosives into a "vital installation," Jammu and Kashmir police chief Kuldeep Khuda said yesterday. The Mumbai attacks in which 172 people were killed ? including nine militant gunmen ? have been blamed on the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group, which is fighting Indian rule in Kashmir. *AFP