Tourists flee Indian Kashmir after ‘terror’ warning

Thousands of tourists and students scrambled to get places on planes and buses leaving Kashmir on Saturday after the Indian government warned of the threat of “terror” attacks.

Thousands of military reinforcements were arriving in the Himalayan territory, also claimed by Pakistan, where a three-decade old insurgency has left tens of thousands dead.

The Jammu and Kashmir state government said late Friday that holiday-makers and religious tourists should leave “immediately” because of new intelligence about “terror threats” to a major Hindu pilgrimage in the region.

A separate government notice also advised hundreds of students from other Indian states to leave the Himalayan Valley.

Britain and Germany have issued warnings against travel to the region.

Anxious visitors, including some foreigners, flooded the airport at the main city Srinagar on Saturday, many without tickets for flights that day.

Visitor numbers have been boosted by the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage in recent years, with more than 300,000 Hindus devotees visiting the ice stalagmite cave shrine in the Himalayas.

The pilgrimage has been cancelled because of the scare.

A huge security force had been guarding the route even before the alert, and a second smaller pilgrimage, the Machail Mata Yatra, in Jammu region was also cancelled Saturday.

“Passengers who were scheduled to return in coming days have turned up in panic at the airport today,” said the manager of one airline operating the Delhi-Srinagar route.

“It’s chaotic and not many will manage seats unless there are additional flights.”

Hundreds of Indian students from outside Kashmir were evacuated in buses.

“All the non-local students have left the campus for their respective states,” an administrative official at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar told AFP.

Kashmiri residents formed long lines outside petrol stations, food stores and bank cash machines on Friday night after the alert was announced. But the queues eased Saturday.

India’s military head in Kashmir, Lieutenant General Kanwal Jeet Singh Dhillon, said Friday that a sniper gun and a mine with Pakistani markings had been found on the route of the Amarnath Yatra.

“This proves Pakistani attempts to attack the Yatra,” said Singh, who has 500,000 forces in Kashmir battling the insurgency.

India and Pakistan divided Kashmir when they became independent in 1947 but both claim it in full and have fought two of three wars since over the territory.

The Indian government has admitted that 10,000 extra troops were sent to Kashmir a week ago. Media reports Friday said a further 25,000 had been ordered there.

The government has declined to say how many are in the new reinforcements.

Early Sunday the Press Trust of India quoted a defence spokesman as saying Pakistani troops had fired mortar and small arms rounds in Poonch district, which would be a ceasefire violation, along the de facto border dividing Kashmir.

Indian forces retaliated, PTI said.

In a separate incident further north along the Line of Control, several “Pakistani regulars/terrorists” were killed by India’s army during an attempted attack over the past week, Colonel Rajesh Kalia, an Indian defence spokesman, told PTI.

While military authorities and the state government highlighted the security risk, Kashmir politicians have raised fears that the extra Indian troops are a sign that the Hindu nationalist government could carry out a threat to scrap Kashmir’s special status under the constitution.

Political leaders in the territory have warned that cancelling constitutionally guaranteed rights, which mean only state domiciles can buy land in the region, could spark unrest in the disputed Muslim majority state.

The main opposition Congress party accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of preparing for a “misadventure” which leader P. Chidambaram said would be “fraught with very serious legal and political consequences”.

Modi’s government has refused to say whether it is about to scrap the constitutional article, though he has often spoken against it.