Thousands flee Kashmir over attack alert

THOUSANDS of Indian tourists, pilgrims and workers began leaving the disputed region of Kashmir after a local government alert over possible militant attacks.

Indian security officials said on Friday they had found evidence of attacks planned by what they said were Pakistani military-backed militants on a major Hindu pilgrimage in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

A local government order effectively called off the pilgrimage, asking the pilgrims and tourists to return home.

Srinagar-based Indian defence spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia said on Saturday that there had been a number of attempts by Pakistan-based militants to disturb peace in the Kashmir region and target the pilgrims.

Around five to seven militants were killed when they tried to attack Indian troops near an area known as the Keran sector, Kalia said, adding that arms and ammunition were recovered in the operation.

A Pakistani defence spokesperson dismissed India's assertions as "mere propaganda", calling them "blatant lies".

A senior local government official in Kashmir said the local government advisory had caused panic and led to the departure of "thousands" of tourists, pilgrims and labourers.

The official did not give a specific number, but he said most of the 20,000 Hindu pilgrims and Indian tourists and the more than 200,000 labourers were leaving the region.

The Indian advisory was issued after the local government in Kashmir said a mine with Pakistani ordnance markings was among caches of ammunition retrieved following intelligence reports of likely attacks on routes used by devout Hindus who trek to the region's holy Amarnath cave every year.

In a mood of anxiety, people sought to stock up on essentials and there were long queues outside petrol pumps, ATMs and medical shops in Srinagar city, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir state.

More than 6000 passengers left Srinagar by air on Saturday, the Airports Authority of India said in a statement.

Still, around 60 international tourists arrived in Kashmir on Saturday, one of the local government officials said.

The Indian advisory had cautioned tourists in general but did not give any specific advice to foreign nationals.

Britain and Germany issued advisories on Saturday to their citizens discouraging them from travelling to Jammu and Kashmir.

India accuses Pakistan of funding armed militants, as well as separatist groups in India's portion of the region that are considered non-violent by international observers.

Islamabad denies the Indian accusation, saying it provides only diplomatic and moral support to the separatist movement.

On Saturday, Pakistan also accused India of using illegal cluster bombs in the Kashmir region during shelling along the contested border. India denied those accusations.



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