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European Parliament members in Kashmir in rare foreign visit

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — A group of European Parliament members arrived in Indian-administered Kashmir on Tuesday, the first foreign delegation to travel to the disputed region since India stripped it of its semi-autonomous status and imposed a harsh crackdown in early August.

The group, from 11 countries, will assess the situation in Kashmir, Indian officials said Monday after the delegation met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The delegation is the first foreign group to visit Kashmir since India’s surprise decision in August to strip the Muslim-majority region of its constitutional rights to self-government and land ownership.

The decision was accompanied by a harsh crackdown, with New Delhi sending tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarized region, imposing a sweeping curfew, arresting thousands and cutting virtually all communications.

Authorities have since eased some restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some cellphone services. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or fear amid threats of violence.

As the crackdown continues, Kashmiris have quietly refused to resume their normal lives, confounding India at their own economic expense.

Earlier, India denied access to the region to U.N. special rapporteurs, U.S. congressmen, foreign journalists and some of its own members of Parliament.

A British politician said Tuesday that the Indian government withdrew with “little explanation” its invitation to him to be part of the delegation after he demanded to speak with local people without a police escort, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament Chris Davies said the decision showed the Indian government is trying to hide the “reality of its actions.”

“I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well. It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice,” the news agency quoted Davies as saying.

An official in the office of the Delegation of the European Union to India earlier told AP the visit was unofficial and was being carried out by some members of the European Parliament in their personal capacity.

The region witnessed a complete shutdown on Tuesday. Markets did not open in the morning and there was little traffic on the roads.

Protesters clashed with government forces in several parts of Srinagar, the main city, chanting slogans such as “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom” and blocking roads by burning tires and wooden logs.

Protesters also threw stones at government forces, who fired tear gas and shotgun pellets.

The move to give rare access to European Parliament members has been criticized by opposition parties.

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party tweeted late Monday: “MPs from Europe are welcome to go on a guided tour of Jammu & #Kashmir while Indian MPs are banned & denied entry. There is something very wrong with that.”

Many Indian opposition leaders who earlier tried to visit the region were not allowed to do so or were sent back from the Srinagar airport by the authorities.

The People’s Democratic Party, a regional pro-India party in Kashmir whose top leaders have been arrested by India, has said it will not be part of any “rhetoric” New Delhi wants to build by concealing the “real situation” in the region.

The EU delegation’s visit comes a day after gunmen killed the fourth truck driver in the last three weeks in the region. Gunmen have targeted apple traders and truck drivers about to drive away with the apple consignments from Kashmir’s southern Shopian area, whose apple industry is vital to its economy.

Meanwhile, the United Nations expressed concerns Tuesday about the human rights of the people in the region. The spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said the region “continues to be deprived of a wide range of human rights” and urged Indian authorities “to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied.”

The Modi-led government says its decision to strip Kashmir of its semi-autonomy could achieve greater economic development for the region by doing away with the sense of separateness that it says cultivated the separatist movement.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety. The two countries have fought two wars over control of the region.

India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebels who have been fighting for Kashmir’s independence or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. Islamabad rejects India’s charge and says it only provides moral and diplomatic support. About 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.

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Associated Press writer Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Associated Press