India prime minister promises $12 billion in aid for Kashmir

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday promised a $12 billion federal aid package to boost economic growth in the Indian-controlled portion of the troubled Kashmir region.

Modi steered clear of discussing politics during his daylong visit to the disputed area, and instead promised to bring greater economic development and jobs to the Himalayan region. He said he hoped the economic package would "change the fate of Kashmir."

"I want to build a new Kashmir, a powerful Kashmir," he said in his nearly hourlong speech, which comes a year after massive floods devastated the region.

He was also expected to inaugurate a power project and a new highway later Saturday.

The region's main city, Srinagar, was under a security lockdown to prevent protests during Modi's visit.

Police sharpshooters were stationed on the rooftops of all buildings near the cricket stadium in Srinagar, where Modi addressed a rally. The buildings were occupied by security troops.

Thousands of people, most of them party workers and supporters of the state's People's Democratic Party, were brought to the venue in buses under tight security.

Separatist leaders in the region rejected the aid package.

"Only providing promised right to self-determination will change the fate of Kashmir, not mere economic packages," one of the separatist leaders, Syed Ali Geelani, told reporters before police detained him as he attempted to break his house arrest and lead a march in Srinagar.

"We'll continue to fight against India's brutal military occupation," he said.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, another key Kashmiri separatist leader under house arrest, said Modi's speech was "nothing but full of rhetoric."

A number of rebel groups have operated in Kashmir since an insurgency erupted in 1989. More than 68,000 people have been killed in the fighting and the ensuing crackdown by Indian forces.

Residents of the Indian-held portion strongly favor independence or a merger with Pakistan. Their deep opposition to Indian rule is often expressed through street demonstrations, with Indian troops largely suppressing the armed uprising.

On Saturday, heavy security meant that the streets were deserted, except for government troops in riot gear carrying automatic weapons. Shops, businesses and schools were closed in most parts of Kashmir.

Separatists had planned a rally Saturday near the site of Modi's speech, but his address passed without any major protests. Scores of people who attempted to march earlier in the day were dispersed by government troops. Police detained at least four protesters.

Ahead of the visit, police detained separatist leaders and hundreds of their supporters to prevent protests.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, with both claiming the entire territory.

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This story has been corrected to show that the size of the economic aid package is $12 billion, instead of $120 billion.