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Empty classrooms as some schools re-open in Indian Kashmir

Parvaiz Bukhari, Bhuvan Bagga and Jalees Andrabi
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India on August 5 ended the special constitutional status of Muslim-majority Kashmir

Some Kashmir schools re-opened on Monday but were largely empty following weekend clashes in Srinagar, two weeks after India removed the restive region's autonomy and imposed a lockdown.

The authorities said they were re-opening 190 primary schools in the city yet few children could be seen at half a dozen locations visited by AFP.

India on August 5 ended the special constitutional status of Muslim-majority Kashmir, where a 30-year-old uprising against Indian rule has killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians.

Hours before its move, India curtailed movement and shut down phones and the internet, bringing in tens of thousands of troops to turn the main city of Srinagar into a fortress.

Some 120,000 extra soldiers have been deployed, a security source told AFP, joining around 500,000 already in the northern Himalayan region divided with Pakistan since 1947.

At least 4,000 people have also been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which allows imprisonment for up to two years without charge or trial, government sources said.

Authorities have declined to comment on the numbers of people behind bars. Those picked up include local politicians, activists, business leaders and lawyers.

Around 20 percent of landlines were working on Monday, an AFP reporter said. But mobile phones and the internet remained severed.

- Trump phone calls -

In Washington, US President Donald Trump spoke by phone with both India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In his call to Modi, Trump "conveyed the importance of reducing tensions" between India and Pakistan "and maintaining peace in the region," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a brief statement.

Khan, in his second conversation with Trump in three days on Kashmir, "expressed serious concern over a humanitarian crisis" in the region and hoped that Washington "would play its role in resolving the crisis," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in Islamabad.

Khan also asked Trump to talk to Modi about ways to lower tensions between the two countries, Qureshi said.

Pakistan wants UN observer mission to be "dispatched forthwith" to Indian-administered Kashmir and for the curfew there to be "lifted immediately," he said.

Pakistan said Indian fire across their de-facto border on Sunday killed two civilians and seriously injured a child, one day after New Delhi said Pakistani fire killed an Indian soldier.

- 'Self-determination' -

On Sunday family members held a wake for timber trader Sidiq Khan, 62, who relatives said had died after suffocating from tear gas fired by security forces in Srinagar.

A senior government official told AFP that a man in his mid-60s had died, and that a post-mortem "has not revealed any external or internal marks of injury".

After some easing in previous days, authorities reinforced heavy restrictions after eight people were injured during protests.

The Press Trust of India news agency cited unnamed officials saying there had been clashes in a dozen locations around Srinagar on Saturday.

Late Sunday, AFP attended one protest in Srinagar, where demonstrators shared their anger about New Delhi's decision and the lockdown.

"Is it independence, keeping the people inside their places and doing whatever they want to do?... They are just violating all the human rights that a person has," one protester who wore a motorcycle helmet and face mask to protect his identity told AFP.

Another demonstrator, who also asked to remain anonymous, said locals did not want economic development, as New Delhi has claimed, but the right to self-determination.

"The fact is that Kashmiri people are demanding their birthright -- the right to self-determination. For this right, the people of Kashmir are sacrificing their lives since a long time now... freedom of speech, freedom of their will," he told AFP.

- No kids -

In Srinagar on Monday most main streets and markets were deserted, although some roads looked busier than in recent days.

Some teachers and administrative staff made it to schools but many others didn't. PTI also reported that only a handful of children had come.

"We didn't receive an official notification for re-opening the school from the local government but opened it after watching the news yesterday," a senior official at Srinagar's Burn Hall School told AFP.

Many schools stayed shut, with guards at the gate turning away any teachers or administrative staff who turned up.

"I don't think parents will send their children to school if they can't communicate and check on them whenever required," a resident of the Rajbagh area of Srinagar told AFP outside the Presentation Convent School.

"I came here after watching the news yesterday but it doesn't look like any students have come to school today. There are many other teachers who stay farther away and haven't made it here," one of the teachers at a local school told AFP.