Authorities in Indian-controlled Kashmir have extended a curfew to most of the disputed Himalayan region in an attempt to prevent an anti-India protest march to a prominent shrine, but clashes erupted as thousands defied the restrictions.
The mostly Muslim region, where resistance to rule by predominantly Hindu India is strong, has been under a rolling curfew and strikes for nearly a month after the killing of a popular rebel commander sparked massive anti-India demonstrations.
At least 54 civilians and a policeman have been killed and thousands injured.
Separatists urged Kashmiris to march to the Hazratbal shrine in the city of Srinagar and stage protests after Friday prayers.
Police and paramilitary soldiers patrolled streets and laid razor wire and steel barricades to cut off neighbourhoods in the city, while shops, businesses and schools remained closed for the 28th consecutive day.
Thousands of Kashmiris defied the security lockdown and demonstrated at dozens of places in the region. They chanted slogans such as “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom”.
Violence erupted in at least two dozen places after government forces intercepted the protesters and fired live ammunition, tear gas and shotgun pellets, police and witnesses said.
Two men were killed and at least 100 civilians were injured, some of them critically. At least 20 police and soldiers were also reported injured.
Troops continued firing shotguns to disperse angry crowds despite warnings from India’s home ministry to minimise their use, and requests for a ban from local and international rights groups. The pellets have killed at least one man and left hundreds of civilians with serious eye injuries. Dozens of people have been blinded.
Government forces barred people from praying at large mosques across the region for a fourth Friday in a row, but allowed prayers at small neighbourhood mosques.
Separatist politicians, demanding an end to Indian rule, have extended the protest strikes until August 12.
The troubled region is experiencing some of the largest protests against Indian rule in recent years since troops killed the rebel commander on July 8.
Tens of thousands of people have defied the curfew and participated in street protests, often leading to clashes between rock-throwing residents and government forces.
Kashmir is divided between arch rivals India and Pakistan, which have fought two wars over control of the region since British colonialists left the subcontinent in 1947.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training Kashmiri rebels who have been fighting for independence or merger with Pakistan since 1989. Pakistan denies the charge, saying it only provides moral and political support to Kashmiris.
Most people in the Indian-controlled part resent the presence of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and support the rebel cause.
More than 68,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising against Indian rule and the subsequent military crackdown.