Thousands flee Kashmir after security alert, says Indian official

Tensions in Indian-administered Kashmir surge as Indian officials warn of possible armed attacks in the region.

    Thousands of people have started leaving Indian-administered Kashmir after the local government issued a security alert related to possible armed attacks in the area, a senior government official said on Saturday.

    Indian security officials on Friday said they had found evidence of attacks planned by Pakistani military-backed armed groups on a major Hindu pilgrimage in Kashmir.

    For 45 days a year, thousands of Hindus from across India  travel to the holy Amarnath cave, in southern Kashmir.

    The security officials claimed that they had intelligence reports of likely attacks on the routes used by devout Hindus.

    A local government order issued on Friday effectively called off the pilgrimage, asking the pilgrims and tourists to return home.

    A senior local government official in Kashmir told the Reuters news agency that the advisory had caused panic and led to the departure of "thousands" of tourists, pilgrims and labourers.

    The official did not give a specific number, but said most of the 20,000 Hindu pilgrims and Indian tourists - and more than 200,000 labourers - were leaving the region.

    About 60 international tourists arrived in Kashmir on Saturday, however, the official said.

    The Indian advisory had cautioned tourists, but did not give specific advice to foreign nationals.

    By Saturday, Germany and the United Kingdom warned their citizens against travelling to Jammu and Kashmir.

    "Travellers staying in Kashmir (especially the Kashmir Valley and the Amarnath Yatra Pilgrimage Route) are advised to leave Jammu and Kashmir," the German ministry of foreign affairs said.

    The order has increased tensions following India's announcement that it was sending thousands of more troops to the region, raising fears in Kashmir that New Delhi is planning to scrapan Indian constitutional provision that disallows Indians to buy land in the Muslim-majority region.

    Kashmir tourists
    Indian tourists load their luggage onto a passenger vehicle as they prepare to leave Srinagar [Reuters]

    'I fail to understand why we are asked to leave'

    The travel advisory has left tourists and pilgrims disappointed.

    Prabakar Iyer, 45, had travelled to Srinagar from the southern Indian city of Bengaluru on Thursday with his family for a 10-day holiday, but they returned home on Friday night.

    "I was staying in a houseboat on Dal Lake when the advisory was issued. I fail to understand why we are being asked to leave. Everything is normal here," he said.

    Labourer Manjit Singh, a carpenter from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh who has been working in Kashmir for the last nine years, also left.

    "I am not afraid but the government advisory has created panic and my family wants me back ... I will return if the situation improves," he said. 

    On Friday, Indian aviation authorities told airlines to prepare to operate additional flights from Srinagar to bring back pilgrims and tourists, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

    Tensions have run high in the region since a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into an Indian police convoy on February 14, killing 40 paramilitary policemen.

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    The attack led to a major standoff between India and Pakistan, including aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed countries. 

    The two countries divided Kashmir when they became independent in 1947, and have fought two of their three wars since over the territory. 

    India accuses Pakistan of creating unrest, and funding armed rebellions against Indian rule in its administered part of Kashmir, a charge Pakistan denies.

    An estimated 700,000 soldiers have been deployed by India in the valley and along the de facto border with Pakistan (called the Line of Control or LoC), making Kashmir one of the world's most militarised regions.

    Since 1989, about 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in India-administered Kashmir, monitoring groups say.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies