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Hindu pilgrimage begins amid Kashmir unrest

Srinagar, June 30, 2010:

The annual pilgrimage to the holy Hindu shrine of Amarnath in Indian administered Kashmir began Wednesday amid heightened tensions in the region.

The first batch of 1000 pilgrims was today flagged off from Jammu city, the winter capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, officials said.

The convoy of vehicles carrying Hindu pilgrims was escorted by security vehicles.

The vehicles have to pass through the Anantnag town, 62-km south of Srinagar to reach base camp in Pahalgam.

The situation in Anantnag town is tense following the killing of three youth in police and paramilitary shooting on protesters.

Authorities have clamped curfew in the town and adjoining areas to prevent further protests.

The pilgrims were briefly stopped and assembled at Udhampur to proceed in a single convoy under security arrangements, offcials said. <> In the past three weeks, police and paramilitary have killed 11 civilians, mostly teenagers, by shooting at protestors at various places across Indian administered Kashmir.

"We have made adequate security arrangements to ensure there is no disturbance in the Amarnath pilgrimage,” said Farooq Khan, Deputy Inspector General of Police in Jammu.

Media reports suggest that around 3000 personnel of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) have been airlifted to the region to ensure the safety of the pilgrims.

The two month pilgrimage to the cave shrine located 3888 meters above sea level housing the ice stalagmite is expected to end by August 24.

The chairman of hardline faction of Hurriyat Conference Syed Ali Shah Geelani earlier asked local government to restrict the annual pilgrimage to its original duration of 15 days instead of two months.

The hardliner cited environmental concerns for this demand and said that increased duration endangers the fragile environment around the cave.

Geelani has been booked under Public Safety Act (PSA) by the local government.

In 2008 a disagreement over the transfer of land to Hindu shrine board in Indian-controlled Kashmir stirred some of the largest pro-freedom demonstrations in the region and pitted the Muslim dominated Kashmir Valley against Hindu dominated Jammu province.

The state government transferred 100 acres of forest land to the shrine board for building infrastructure, which was opposed by the locals fearing transfer of land to non-state subjects amounts to violation of laws.

The standoff took a communal colour and Hindus activists in Jammu disrupted supplies to Muslim majority areas by imposing an economic blockade.

More than 60 people were killed and scores left in injured in police firings across the region in 2008 agitation.

Environmental groups have been accusing the shrine board of playing havoc with the fragile environment enroute the holy cave by increasing flow of pilgrims and increasing the duration of pilgrimage from 15 days to two months.

Last year around 400,000 pilgrims from across the India visited the cave.

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