Srinagar/New Delhi, June 29: Three more youths were killed in Kashmir today as protests over shootings of civilians spread and chief minister Omar Abdullah, backed by the Centre, justified the tough measures to quell the 18-day unrest.
The deaths of Imtiyaz Ahmad, Ishtiyaq Ahmad and Shuja-ul-Islam in south Kashmirs Anantnag have taken the number of casualties to 11 in the clashes with security forces. Scores of protesters have been injured.
The violence escalated on a day Omar blamed anti-national elements and vested interests for fomenting the trouble.
The chief minister asserted that the crisis was not because of bad governance, as his rivals in the state have suggested, but stemmed from a battle of wits and ideologies.
Omar also defended the CRPF, blamed for several of the shootings. The stand that seemed at odds with that of his law minister Ali Mohammad Sagar, who had yesterday accused the central force of unwarranted firings. Omar said it would be difficult to bring situation under control if the CRPF is blamed time and again.
The authorities today withdrew SMS services in the Valley and blocked mobile calls in north Kashmir to check rumour-mongering. Cable operators were told to beam news only for 15 minutes in the evenings.
Farooq Ahmad Khanday, uncle of the slain youths Ishtiyaq and Shuja, alleged that the cousins were killed on the lawns of their Anantnag house around 12.30pm. Security forces entered our house and shot my two nephews dead, Farooq said.
Imtiyaz was killed soon after in the same locality, which lies along the Anantnag-Pahalgam Road, the traditional route to the Amarnath cave shrine. The Amaranth yatra starts tomorrow. Late this evening, police sources claimed miscreants tried to set ablaze a temple in Anantnag town.
The sources spoke of fierce clashes between stone-throwing youths and security forces elsewhere, too. Sopore and Baramulla in the north remained under curfew, while tough curbs were clamped in large parts of state capital Srinagar. In the border district of Kupwara, protesters hit the streets chanting pro-freedom slogans.
Much of the Valley observed a bandh against the civilian killings. Shops, business establishments and government offices remained closed. University and school examinations have been cancelled.
The government has kept open the option of calling in the army, but senior home ministry officials in Delhi said the central forces and the police would be enough to control the situation.
Omar dismissed suggestions of a rift in the government on using the CRPF. Reports of the differences were fuelled by law minister Sagars statement that the government was thinking of reining in the force.
There is no rift. I have twice talked to the (Union) home minister (not complaining about the CRPF) but on how to bring situation under controlů.It takes two hands to clapůthere have been incidents where stone-throwers have mercilessly beaten the men in uniform. Let there be no misunderstanding that nobody will be allowed to take law and order in their hands, Omar said.
The tough stand followed an hour-long meeting that Omar held with governor N.N. Vohra where the chief minister was said to have got the full backing of the Centre in handling the situation.
In Delhi, P. Chidambaram almost echoed Omar, saying anti-national elements were trying to exploit the situation. Some militants may also have sneaked into the Valley to trigger violence. I appeal to all those who believe in peace and development to stand by the state government and help it restore law and order, the Union home minister said in a statement.
Chidambaram asserted that he endorsed every word of the chief ministers statement today. According to home ministry sources, the Centre has asked the state government to deal firmly with the protests.
The home ministry was also pleased that Omar had articulated a shared concern in a public appeal earlier in the day calling for a halt to the unrest: that security forces cannot maintain restraint if protesters violate the curfew.