Clashes follow fire at Kashmir Sufi shrine

Large crowds gathered as firefighters battled to save the shrine

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Police have clashed with protesters after a fire destroyed a revered 200-year-old Sufi shrine in Srinagar city, Indian-administered Kashmir.

Protesters angered by what they called a slow response by firefighters chanted and threw stones, and one report said a fire engine was torched.

Police reportedly fired bullets in the air and tear gas. At least 20 people - police and protesters - were injured.

The cause of the fire, which devastated the wooden building, remains unknown.

A separatist campaign has been under way for more than two decades in India's only Muslim-majority state, and spills frequently into violence.

Start Quote

It needs to be thoroughly probed as the custodians of the shrine informed us that the fire started at at least three places”

End Quote Mirwaiz Umar Farooq Kahsmiri separatist leader

Sufism is the predominant Muslim tradition followed in Kashmir.

Witnesses first noticed the fire at the Peer Dastageer Sahib shrine on Monday morning, and it quickly engulfed the wooden structure, reports said.

The chief custodian of the shrine, Syed Khalid Hussein, told AFP news agency that sacred articles, including relics and handwritten copies of the Koran, were safe.

But the main structure of the building was said to have been completely gutted by the blaze.

Barricades

More than a dozen firefighters fought the flames at the shrine on Monday morning, reports said.

But locals accused the firefighters of arriving on the scene late and ill-equipped.

Thousands of people flocked the streets around the temple, AP news agency reported, some wailing and crying, others chanting anti-India slogans and demanding freedom from Indian rule.

A Kashmiri Muslim protester throws an exploded tear gas shell back at an Indian police officer during a protest after a fire broke out at the nearly 200-year-old Peer Dastageer Sahib shrine in downtown Srinagar, India, on Monday Protesters have called a statewide strike over the authorities' handling of the fire for Tuesday

Police were quoted as saying between 10 and 30 protesters were injured in clashes with police, along with 10 police officers.

Steel barricades were erected in roads leading to the shrine, AP said.

Authorities said the cause of the fire was being investigated, but some protesters called for an independent investigation, it said.

"It needs to be thoroughly probed as the custodians of the shrine informed us that the fire started at at least three places in the shrine," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader, according to AP.

"We've no faith in government probes. They always use these tactics to becalm public anger."

Another report suggested Mr Farooq - along with other separatist leaders - had been placed under "pre-emptive" house arrest amid the protests.

Protesters have called for a statewide strike over the handling of the fire on Tuesday.

The shrine houses relics of the 12th Century Central Asian Muslim saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir, the founder of the "Qadriya" branch of Sufism.

The shrine is popular with both Hindus and Muslims who visit it in large numbers to offer prayers.

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