Clashes erupt in Kashmir after shrine fire

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By AIJAZ HUSSAIN, Associated Press

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — A fire destroyed a revered Muslim shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir on Monday, prompting anti-government protests by residents angered over what they said was a slow response by firefighters.

At least 30 protesters and 10 policemen were injured in clashes, police said. Shops and businesses remained closed.

The cause of the fire at the 200-year-old shrine of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani in the heart of Srinagar city was not immediately known. The blaze started from the roof shortly after morning prayers and quickly engulfed the wooden structure, a police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The 11th century saint, popularly known worldwide as Ghaus-e-Azam, is buried in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The shrine, which held his relics, has served as an important center of Islamic and spiritual teachings in Kashmir.

"The holy relics are safe and have been retrieved," the officer said.

Police and paramilitary soldiers laid razor wire and erected steel barricades on roads leading to the shrine where thousands of men and women had gathered, many of them wailing and crying.

Scores of firefighters tried to douse the flames, but protesters threw stones at them and burned a fire truck, saying their response was slow. Thousands of people later crowded nearby streets, chanting anti-India slogans and demanding Kashmir's freedom from Indian rule.

Clashes erupted in at least four other neighborhoods in Srinagar, with protesters throwing stones at police and officers responding by firing bullets into the air and using tear gas, the officer said.

Authorities appealed for calm and ordered a probe into the fire.

"It's an unfortunate incident. The probe will be completed within a few days," Law Minister Ali Mohammed Sagar told reporters in Srinagar.

But separatists rejected the government probe and instead called for an independent investigation. They also called for a general strike on Tuesday.

"It needs to be thoroughly probed as the custodians of the shrine informed us that the fire started at at least three places in the shrine," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader. "We've no faith in government probes. They always use these tactics to becalm public anger."

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and is claimed by both. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the Indian-administered portion, where rebel groups have fought since 1989 for independence or merger with Pakistan.

More than 68,000 people have been killed in the uprising and subsequent Indian crackdown.

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