Government investigators were exhuming the bodies Monday of two women whose unsolved rape and murder sparked weeks of enraged protests in Indian-run Kashmir and exposed the deep tensions plaguing this turbulent region.
The killings further stoked anti-India sentiments in the Muslim-majority territory, where militant groups have been fighting for independence since 1989. Local activists blamed Indian security forces for the killings and expressed skepticism the investigation would satisfy their demands for justice.
"All one can do is wait to see what the investigators can do. But frankly speaking, no one expects the state to indict itself," said local resident Abdul Ahad, an apple farmer.
Meanwhile, three suspected militants and a civilian woman were killed Monday in a shootout with security forces in the village of Tral in southern Kashmir, said Col. K. Umamaheswar, an army spokesman. Two paramilitary soldiers also were wounded, he said.
Human rights groups and separatist leaders have long accused Indian security forces of using rape to intimidate residents. Rights groups say investigations into such crimes rarely yield results.
Police and paramilitary forces with rifles and flak jackets closed the main roads leading to Shopian early Monday. The paths to the Muslim cemetery where the two women were buried were sealed with razor wire, and a tent shielded the grave sites from view.
A team of doctors and forensic experts began working early in the morning to exhume and conduct autopsies on the bodies of 22-year-old Neelofar Jan and her 17-year-old sister-in-law, Asiya Jan, who were found dead May 30 in a shallow stream.
Local authorities at first said the women drowned, but later classified their deaths as rape and murder. They failed to make any arrests, however, and called for national investigators to take over.
The deaths led to 50 days of violent protests that shut down Shopian as protesters chanted, "We want freedom," hurled rocks at security forces and ransacked government offices. Troops responded with bullets and tear gas. At least two people were killed and 400 injured in the clashes that spread across the Kashmir valley.
Shopian was quiet Monday. Businesses were closed and the streets were empty of vehicles as residents shut down the town, 35 miles (60 kilometers) south of Srinagar, the main city of Indian-controlled Kashmir.
"We have decided to fully cooperate so that they don't have any excuse to say that locals disrupted the exhumation process," said Javaid Ahmed, a local activist.
Dozens of women - some of them wailing with grief - gathered at the homes of the victims' families near the graveyard.
"This fear will remain with us forever," Neelofar Jan's mother, Ayesha, said as she sobbed. "We are exhausted now. What can we do with this pain?"
Four police officers arrested on charges of suppressing and destroying evidence in the case were freed earlier this month, deepening the residents' skepticism.
Only an international investigation would satisfy the public, said Sheikh Shokat, a law professor at the University of Kashmir in Srinagar.
"The government and its institutions have no credibility in Kashmir. People say, from experience, that these probes are conducted to camouflage reality," he said.
India's military and paramilitary forces have not responded to the allegations that security forces were behind the killings. The national investigative team has made no comment on its probe.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the region in its entirety. The South Asian neighbors have fought two of three wars over Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947.
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