- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

SRINAGAR, India | India’s regular army patrolled the violence-hit streets of Kashmir to enforce a round-the-clock curfew for the first time in two decades Wednesday after weeks of deadly unrest in the Muslim-majority region.

Anti-India protests have grown increasingly strident. Residents accuse government forces of killing at least 15 people in street demonstrations over the past month, including three on Tuesday — raising concerns the situation could spin out of control.

“We are out to give support to the state machinery. We are ready to move anywhere, anytime,” Col. Vineet Sood, an army spokesman, said in the main city, Srinagar.

A separatist insurgency fighting for Kashmir’s independence from Hindu-majority India or its merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan has been active since 1989, and tens of thousands have been killed in the conflict. But resistance is now principally through street demonstrations.

The Indian army is ubiquitous in Kashmir — a Himalayan region also claimed by Pakistan and divided by a heavily militarized border — but its operations are usually aimed at combating insurgents.

Although it routinely conducts patrols, including in Srinagar, the army has not been used in crowd control since major street protests in 1990. While street unrest is common, such situations are typically managed by police and paramilitary troops.

On Wednesday, the army patrolled both Srinagar and the key town of Baramulla. Thousands of government forces put up roadblocks and barbed wire, forcing people to stay indoors. Most streets were deserted. Schools, offices, shops and businesses were shut.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of separatist groups, nonetheless called for more street protests.

In at least three places in Srinagar, small groups of protesters defied the curfew, carrying placards reading, “Go India, Go Back,” and chanting pro-freedom slogans. Police and paramilitary troops fired tear-gas shells to disperse the protesters who responded by throwing rocks at the troops, a police official said on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

There were no immediate reports of any injuries.