|Congress party chief Gandhi, left, says young Kashmiris growing up in the ’embrace of violence’ need hope [AFP]|
At least five protesters have been shot dead by police as violence in Indian-administered Kashmir spreads to new areas.
The fatal shooting on Wednesday came as the Indian government held crisis talks in New Delhi to tackle the escalating unrest.
Officials said police fired on an angry crowd in the previously quiet town of Mendhar, a Muslim settlement in a Hindu-dominated area to the southwest of Kashmir, 210km from the town of Jammu.
“Four youths have been killed in the firing and several government buildings … were attacked and burnt down by the angry protesters,” Pawan Kotwal, a top local government official, told reporters.
Another death was reported by local police in the volatile northern town of Sopore, where police shot a 24-year-old man.
Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, called for calm and said he was “shocked and distressed” by the demonstrations engulfing the disputed Himalayan area.
Wednesday’s toll brings to 23 the number of people killed since Monday in what has been dubbed the bloodiest days in three months of protests.
A cross-party meeting of political leaders in New Delhi ended with no new initiatives, but a decision was made to send a fact-finding mission to “meet all sections of the people and gather all shades of opinion”.
For three months young Kashmiris have thrown stones at security forces and rallied against Indian rule in the Muslim-majority region.
The clashes between the stone throwers and security agencies have left 93 people dead, according to a tally by the AFP news agency.
Many Indian politicians before Singh have tried and failed to resolve the Kashmir question, producing a deadlock over the status of the region.
Kashmir, split between India and Pakistan, is jointly administered by the two countries and has triggered two of the three wars between the nuclear-armed nations.
Singh told the meeting of political parties in New Delhi that dialogue was the only way out of the crisis, but that peace and calm had to be restored first.
“The only path for lasting peace and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir is that of dialogue and discussion,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Divya Gopalan, reporting from New Delhi, said: “The government has time and time again put the issue on the back burner, but now as pictures of violent demonstrations and clashes are broadcast around the world, there’s a realisation that any delay could re-ignite more flames of fury.”
Saying Kashmir is an integral part of India, Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress party, urged the government to listen to the angry new generation “that has grown up in the embrace of violence, of conflict and brutality”.
“We must give them hope, we must understand and respect their legitimate aspirations,” she said.
Since the weekend, arson and mob attacks have risen, apparently fuelled by reports about the desecration of the Quran by a small group of Christians in Washington on Saturday.
Police in Jammu said the crowd had tried to attack a missionary school in Mendhar.