New violence in Kashmir on eve of India's independence day

(AFP) ї Police shot dead another protester on Thursday in Indian Kashmir, bringing the death toll from days of rioting to 22 as security was boosted on the eve of India's Independence Day celebrations.

Police opened fire on dozens of stone-hurling demonstrators who marched in defiance of a four-day-old curfew in the disputed region's main city Srinagar, killing one and wounding another, a doctor and residents said.

Srinagar and other parts of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley have been the scene of some of the biggest anti-India protests to shake the region in two decades. At least 22 people have been killed and 600 injured since Monday.

"One person died of bullet injuries while another was injured," a doctor at Srinagar's main hospital said on Thursday, after security forces opened fire in what authorities said was an attempt to disperse demonstrators.

The unrest, triggered by a Kashmir government move in June to donate land to a Hindu shrine trust -- a decision later reversed -- has shattered several years of relative calm here brought about by the India-Pakistan peace process.

US-based Human Rights Watch called on India to "refrain from using lethal force against violent protesters... unless it is absolutely necessary to protect life."

The protests in the picturesque Himalayan region -- hit by an anti-Indian insurgency since 1989 that has claimed tens of thousands of lives -- have given new life to Kashmir's independence movement.

Security forces were patrolling Srinagar and other troubled areas in Kashmir amid fears of attacks by Islamic militants on Friday, India's Independence Day -- a day when guerrillas have traditionally carried out strikes.

"We have intelligence inputs militants may try to carry out attacks," defence spokesman S.D. Goswami told AFP, saying security had been tightened even further than usual for the event.

The anniversary of India's independence is marked as a "black day" in the region.

Late on Wednesday, thousands of protesters shouting "We want freedom" poured onto the streets, reviving memories of demonstrations in the early 1990s in support of the separatist insurgency.

On Thursday, hundreds of Srinagar residents held prayers for those killed since Monday. Pro-India Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) also held a demonstration against what its leader Mehbooba Mufti said were "atrocities against Kashmiri Muslims."

Critics allege that during the past week security forces have often not let off warning shots before opening fire on crowds, contrary to usual procedure.

The unrest has triggered a new war of words between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, which each hold part of the disputed region and claim it in full. They have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

Pakistan's parliament on Wednesday condemned the "excessive and brutal" use of force by Indian security forces against "the innocent civilian population of Indian-occupied Kashmir."

The lawmakers called on the international community, particularly the UN and human rights groups, to take note of the deteriorating situation.

An irate India fired back, with foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna saying the allegations "bear no relationship to reality."

"To call for international involvement in the sovereign internal affairs of India is gratuitous, illegal and only reflects reversion to a mindset that has led to no good consequences for Pakistan in the past," Sarna said.

In another sign of deteriorating ties, a trans-Kashmir bus service launched by India and Pakistan in April 2005 amid much fanfare was suspended.

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