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Indian PM in rare visit to Kashmir after attack on soldiers

An Indian army soldier runs for cover at the scene of an encounter with separatist militants in Srinagar June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Ismai
An Indian army soldier runs for cover at the scene of an encounter with separatist militants in Srinagar June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Ismai

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rare visit to restive Kashmir on Tuesday, a day after militants killed eight soldiers in an ambush, the bloodiest in a series of attacks since India hanged a separatist in February.

Separatists called a general strike to coincide with the visit by Singh and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party. The strike reflects public anger with New Delhi on the Indian side of the disputed Himalayan region.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of the territory. They have fought two of their three wars over the Muslim-majority region, and a full-blown insurgency raged against Indian rule in the 1990s.

On Tuesday, shops, offices and schools were closed, and streets deserted in Srinagar, the summer capital of India's Jammu and Kashmir state.

Hundreds of police stood on guard and barbed wire blocked main roads as Singh made his first visit to the region in three years.

On Monday, militants killed eight soldiers in Srinagar in one of their most audacious attacks this year.

"This will not deter the security forces who are engaged in bringing peace and order to the Kashmir valley," Singh said in a statement early on Tuesday.

Hizbul Mujahideen, the most active militant group in Kashmir at the height of the unrest, claimed responsibility for the ambush and warned that more attacks would follow. The group wants Kashmir to become part of Pakistan.

On Saturday, Hizbul Mujahideen militants shot dead two policemen in the heart of Srinagar, even though security had already been stepped up for the prime minister's visit.

About 30 security personnel have died in attacks since the hanging of a Kashmiri man, Mohammad Afzal Guru, in February for his role in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001.

Guru was convicted of helping organize arms for the gunmen who launched the attack and providing a place for them to stay. He always maintained his innocence.

India blamed the 2001 attack on militants backed by Pakistan. Islamabad denied any involvement and condemned the attack, but tension rose sharply, bringing the nuclear-armed rivals dangerously close to their fourth war.

(Writing by Anurag Kotoky in NEW DELHI; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez)

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