Separatist leader assassinated as Hindu, Muslim tensions grow

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

SRINAGAR, India -- A prominent separatist who sought dialogue with India and opposed violence was shot to death Tuesday in front of 5,000 people at a ceremony to commemorate another assassinated independence leader.

The slaying of Abdul Ghani Lone came at a time of increasing tensions between India and Pakistan, nuclear powers that have fought two wars over the divided Himalayan region. Shelling persisted on the India-Pakistan frontier, where the Indian prime minister planned to visit troops.

The two masked men who killed Lone escaped and there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Lone's murder comes ahead of elections scheduled for September in Jammu-Kashmir. It's stands to cause a further division among militants who already disagree on whether to pursue independence or attachment to Pakistan. It's also likely to cause more violence from revenge attacks, and could quiet moderates who have sought talks with the Indian government.

Lone had been attacked last month by a Hindu nationalist and has said India's government tried to kill him. He also has been at odds with other separatists who do not favor dialogue.

Lone's body and that of a security guard lay on the lawn of his Srinagar home, surrounded by wailing women. His son blamed neighboring Pakistan and its Inter Services Intelligence spy agency, which India says has sponsored Islamic militant groups that have crossed into Kashmir and supplanted local separatist groups.

"Pakistan and ISI killed him," Sajjad Lone told The Associated Press Television Network. He gave no explanation. There was no immediate response from Pakistan late Tuesday.

Working for peace

He and his father, a leading peace activist, have urged the Pakistan-based Islamic militants that have fought Indian forces in Kashmir for 12 years to give war-shattered residents a chance to find a nonviolent way of expressing their desires for self-government.

"He was working for peace and for this he had to give up his life," Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told reporters as he arrived in Jammu, winter capital of Jammu-Kashmir, the only state Muslim-majority state in Hindu-dominated India. "Lone's death means we shall have to work harder for peace to return to Kashmir."

Vajpayee came to visit victims of a militant attack on an army base last week that killed 34 people, mostly wives and children of soldiers, raising the war temperature among 1 million troops posted on both sides of the border since December.

India blamed Pakistan and Islamic militants based there for the army camp attack, expelled the Pakistani ambassador, and reorganized maritime and ground forces under the military. An extra 3,000 soldiers were sent to the frontier on Tuesday.

There was aggressive slogan-shouting Tuesday between rival groups -- one supporting Kashmir independence, the other merger with Pakistan -- at the memorial Lone and 5,000 other people attended at a cemetery in Srinagar, summer capital of the state.

The gathering was to commemorate the assassination 12 years ago of Kashmir's highest religious leader, Mohammed Farooq.

Lone was a top leader of Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, whose religious and political parties are sometimes split along the same lines as the cemetery crowd.

As the two-hour event ended, Lone stepped off the stage, holding the hand of his friend, Peer Hafizullah Makhdoomi, who then walked a few steps ahead.

Then two bursts of automatic weapon gunfire rang out, and the crowd dispersed, screaming and terrified.

Makhdoomi said he heard gunfire and turned around to see Lone lying dead on the ground.

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