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Indian Muslim leader is slain at memorial service

May 22, 2002

The International Herald Tribune
By Rama Lakshmi (The Washington Post)

SRINAGAR, India Two masked men wearing police uniforms on Tuesday fatally shot a Muslim leader who advocated a conciliatory approach to resolving a long-running separatist dispute in Indian-controlled Kashmir that has brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

The brazen daylight killing of Abdul Gani Lone, which occurred while he was leaving a boisterous rally memorializing another assassinated Kashmiri independence leader, could provide a serious setback to India's efforts to forge a peaceful settlement in Kashmir, the Himalayan territory divided between India and Pakistan.

Lone was a senior leader of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, a group of political and religious parties that advocate the separation of Indian Kashmir, a Muslim-dominated state, from the rest of India, which is predominantly Hindu. But unlike other members of the conference, Lone favored dialogue with India, supported a cease-fire and objected to the participation of fighters from Pakistan in the separatist struggle - positions that earned him the ire of hard-line militant organizations.

Lone also had been expected to field several proxy candidates in state legislative elections in September, a move that some of his opponents called a sellout to India.

"This is a great tragedy. It is a hard blow not only to the Hurriyet Conference, but also to the people of Kashmir," said Abdul Gani Bhatt, a senior Hurriyet member as he stared at Lone's corpse, which was covered with a white sheet and placed outside his house Tuesday night. "We have lost a seasoned leader who could blend his experience with political reality."

India has blamed Pakistani militants for a series of terrorist strikes, including an attack on the national Parliament in December that killed 14 people and a raid one week ago on an army camp in Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, where 31 people died, including soldiers' wives and children. India contends that the militants have been trained and funded by the Pakistani government, which wants to annex all of Kashmir. Pakistan maintains that the fighters are Kashmiris who are engaged in a legitimate struggle for self-determination.

Witnesses said Lone was shot after the rally as he left the wooden stage and walked toward a row of white sedans. Officials said Lone was shot in the chest at close range by two pistol-toting men who beckoned him to follow them off the stage.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assassination and the police said they had made no arrests. The inspector-general of the Srinagar police, K. Rajendra Kumar, said: "We suspect definitely Pakistan-backed groups waging a war against peace and against anybody talking of elections."

An Indian intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the shooting likely was the result of a "clash between the moderates and the hard-liners in the Hurriyet."

As Lone's body was brought home Tuesday night, hundreds of mourners converged upon his house. Wailing women surrounded the body, some of whom beat their chests and cried out, "Whose curse is this?" Addressing the mourners, Lone's son, Sajjad Lone, blamed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency and a conservative Hurriyet leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, for the attack.

"The ISI is behind this," he said, his eyes bloodshot and his finger wagging. "Mr. Geelani and Pakistan is behind this."

In recent months, Abdul Gani Lone had made little secret of his disgust with role extremist groups based in Pakistan have played in Indian Kashmir, accusing them of co-opting the Kashmiri independence campaign.

"There was a time when we wanted them, but now they should just go home," Lone said in an interview with The Washington Post in December. "They don't support an independent Kashmir. It's just part of their international struggle to Islamicize the world."

At a meeting in Dubai last month, he reportedly told the chief of the Pakistani intelligence agency and the governor of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir that non-Kashmiri militants should stop participating in the struggle. "It did not go down well," said one official familiar with the meeting.

After his visit to the United Arab Emirates, Lone traveled to the United States, returning to the Kashmir Valley only two days ago.

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