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SRINAGAR, India – Thousands of Hindu devotees began an annual pilgrimage Tuesday to an icy cave in Indian-controlled Kashmir amid tight security in the Muslim-majority region, officials said.
At least half a million devotees are expected to make the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine over the next two months.
Thousands of army and paramilitary troops have been deployed along the route – which was targeted during the 1990s by the Muslim separatist rebels still fighting Indian security forces in the region.
The first group of nearly 7,000 pilgrims, chanting hymns and ringing bells, began the 10-mile (16-kilometer) trek from a base camp at Baltal, said Virender Bali, a local police officer. Baltal is 70 miles (110 kilometers) northeast of Srinagar, the biggest city in the disputed Himalayan region.
About 20,000 devotees were camping Tuesday at Baltal – one of several base camps for the trek to the hallowed mountain cave, which lies 13,500 feet (4,115 meters) above sea level.
Hindus worship a stalagmite inside the cave as an incarnation of the Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.
The groups of pilgrims are staggered over two months for security and logistical reasons.
Last year, protests sparked by a planned government transfer of land to build amenities for the pilgrims – a decision later rescinded – led to a crackdown by security forces that left at least 50 dead, mostly Muslims.
Muslim rebels accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim over the Muslim-majority region.
The rebels have been fighting since 1989 for the independence of the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, or its merger with predominantly Muslim Pakistan, which controls another portion of Kashmir.
Associated Press – June 16, 2009
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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