PAHALGAM, India, August 4 (AP) - Last week, this village was bustling with pilgrims and vendors eager for business, but on Friday morning, the place looked more like a ghost town.

Shopkeepers had no customers, tents were empty, and soldiers stood guard in the wake of a gun battle Wednesday between suspected Islamic militants and security forces that left at least 33 people dead, including 19 Hindu pilgrims.

The attack was one of nine across Kashmir that left a total of 102 dead within a few hours. After it, many of the pilgrims who had come from all parts of India to worship at Amarnath Cave, which contains a stalagmite resembling Shiva, have left without participating in the rite.

Most of those killed Wednesday were camping by the sky-blue Lidder River, having their dinner while waiting to take pony rides up the mountainside to view the cave. Others had made the trip and were spending one last night in the busy town before heading home.

By Friday morning, there were no more busloads of pilgrims arriving. Hindu holy men in saffron robes, and shell-shocked women clutching their families' possessions in large cloth bags were trying to arrange transportation out of town.

Small boys who had become the eldest sons in decimated families lit the funeral pyres of their fathers and mothers along the same glacial river.

Shops were open, but the owners sat smoking or chatting with friends.

``My business is 90 percent gone,'' said Mohamad Anwar, who sells provisions for travelers.

He said that normally up to 6,000 pilgrims per day pass through Pahalgam from July 14 to Aug. 13 during the Amarnath festival.

The few people trying to get to the pilgrimage spot were made to pass through metal detectors set up on the roadway, if they were traveling by foot. All cars were halted and checked thoroughly by morose soldiers.

In Jammu, the other major city of the state, used as its winter capital, residents spent their third day inside, not daring to defy the 24-hour curfew clamped on several cities to prevent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. All business and schools were closed.

The slaughter took place the night before the government held its first known talks with the Islamic militant group, the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, which has fought for Kashmir's liberation since 1989. The group has wanted Kashmir to either merge with Pakistan or break from India.

Despite the killings, the talks went ahead on Thursday. A senior government official, Home Secretary Kamal Pande, met in Srinagar with four commanders of the Hezb-ul Mujahedeen, to work out details of a cease-fire that both sides declared last week.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee blamed the attacks on the Pakistan-backed guerrilla group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, that has opposed the cease-fire. But he invited all the Kashmiri militant groups to come forward and talk to the government.

Many groups refuse to negotiate without Pakistan, which has fought two wars with India over Kashmir, a Himalayan region that both countries claim. India controls two-thirds of it.

Vajpayee has said he will not discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, which he accuses of arming, funding and training guerrillas who set bombs and attack security forces in India's only Muslim majority state. Pakistan says it gives only moral support to the guerrillas.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus