SRINAGAR: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a rare visit to restive Kashmir on Tuesday, a day after militants killed eight soldiers in an ambush, the bloodiest in a series of attacks since India hanged separatist Mohammad Afzal Guru in February.
Separatists called a general strike to coincide with the visit by Singh and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party. The strike reflects public anger with New Delhi.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of the territory. They have fought two of their three wars over the Muslim-majority region, and a full-blown insurgency raged against Indian rule in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, shops, offices and schools were closed, and streets deserted in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
Hundreds of police stood on guard and barbed wire blocked main roads as Singh made his first visit to the region in three years.
On Monday, militants killed eight soldiers in Srinagar in one of their most audacious attacks this year.
"This will not deter the security forces who are engaged in bringing peace and order to the Kashmir valley," Singh said in a statement early on Tuesday.
More than a dozen armed rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for the region's independence or its merger with Pakistan and tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians have died in the fighting.
Armed violence had been declining steadily since the early 2000s but the region has been tense following the execution in February of a local man over a deadly 2001 attack on the national parliament in New Delhi.
Mohammed Afzal Guru's execution, carried out in a New Delhi prison without first informing his family, triggered widespread protests in Kashmir where many doubted his guilt.
Much of Kashmir has since been put under curfew repeatedly while protests and strikes have disrupted daily life.
Hizbul Mujahideen, a local militant group claimed responsibility for the Monday attack.
It was the deadliest attack on Indian security forces since July 2008 when a landmine killed nine soldiers on a bus on the outskirts of Srinagar.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was among those who condemned Monday's attack, saying it was "aimed at restoring the shattered morale of the militants".
Abdullah is an ally of Singh but has criticised the Delhi government for showing what he regards as a lack of political will to resolve the underlying tensions in what is India's only Muslim-majority state.
"The Kashmir issue needs to be addressed politically. Economic packages are not a solution to the issue nor can it be found on the point of a gun," Abdullah said recently.
In an editorial on the eve of the visit, the local Kashmir Reader daily said the security measures put in place during the visit "only proves to be a reminder of broken promises".
"This is a protest against the forcible military occupation of Kashmir and we want to give the Indian prime minister this message that by hanging Afzal Guru, New Delhi has sent the entire Kashmiri people to the cross," Syed Ali Geelani, a top separatist leader, said in a statement.
Officials say a few dozen youths have been detained in police stations to "prevent protests" during the visit, although separatist leaders put the figure at hundreds.
Singh is expected to review a federally funded reconstruction package he had announced nine years back after taking office for his first term.
He will also inaugurate part of an ambitious project expected to link the landlocked Kashmir valley with the massive Indian railway network by 2018.
During a visit in 2009, Singh inaugurated another section of the rail link and also reiterated his commitment to an economic reconstruction package worth around $4 billion.
Officials in the local government say only about only 40 percent of the allocated resources have been used so far.
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