Indian troops enforced the fifth day of a military lockdown across Kashmir but eased some restrictions for Friday prayers, as China and Pakistan vowed to stand together after New Delhi's move to end the disputed Muslim-majority region's autonomy.
Beijing said it was “seriously concerned” after the decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to tighten its grip on Kashmir, parts of which are also claimed by China and Pakistan, threatened to destabilise one of the world's most volatile security flashpoints.
New Delhi has flooded the region with soldiers and enforced a curfew in a bid to contain any violence. On Friday the population were allowed to attend prayers “within their neighbourhood” but were unable to “venture out of their local area”, the region's police chief Dilbag Singh told AFP.
The giant Jama Masjid mosque in Srinagar — a longtime focus for separatist protests — remained closed as the government sought to keep a lid on unrest after it cancelled the constitutionally guaranteed privileges of the former Himalayan kingdom, residents told AFP.
“It's tense,” one resident said after going near the mosque. “There are troops everywhere.”
Protests against Indian rule have frequently broken out in Srinagar's old quarter after weekly prayers at the mosque, which can hold more than 30,000 worshippers.
The reinforcements and the 500,000 troops already in Kashmir fighting a three-decade-old insurgency were put on “high alert” for trouble around Friday prayers, the Press Trust of India news agency reported from Srinagar, quoting a security official.
“There is apprehension of mass protests and accordingly necessary steps were taken,” the official said earlier Friday.
The curfew, which has seen internet and phone services cut is set to continue over the weekend.
Pakistan, which has fought two wars with India over Kashmir, has strongly condemned New Delhi's action in the region. China, which also controls a sector of Kashmir, protested this week after India reaffirmed its claim to China's territory on a Himalayan plateau.
On Friday Pakistan's foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi rushed to Beijing for hastily arranged talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi over the issue.
China's foreign ministry released a statement after the meeting in which Wang said Beijing was “seriously concerned about the turbulence and escalating tensions” in Kashmir.
“China will continue to firmly support the Pakistan side in safeguarding its legitimate rights,” the statement continued, adding that the Kashmir issue should be resolved at the United Nations.
“Both Pakistan and India are China's friendly neighbours... We call on both sides to focus on national development and peace in South Asia,” the statement continued.
Qureshi released a video statement after the meeting in which he added: “I am very pleased that China once again proved today that it is Pakistan's reliable friend”.
India's Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is to visit Beijing from Sunday for talks with Wang.
While Pakistan has expelled the Indian ambassador and suspended bilateral trade, Qureshi has said his country would not seek a new conflict with its neighbour.
On Friday, some 3,000 protesters marched in Islamabad, chanting slogans against the move, such as “Kashmir will become Pakistan”.
Despite the huge security presence, sporadic protests have been reported in recent days in Srinagar and the Ladakh region which the government has split away from Jammu and Kashmir under the new measures.
Police have chased groups of pro-separatist demonstrators in Srinagar, many of whom gather at night, residents said. One youth died this week after jumping in a river to escape security forces, according to police.
Friday prayers were the start of a crucial test of New Delhi's ability to enforce the decision by Modi's Hindu nationalist government. The major Muslim festival of Eidul Azha is on Monday.
Modi said in a nationwide address on Thursday that people will “not face difficulties” celebrating Eid.
Media reports said, however, that authorities would only decide on curfew restrictions on Sunday.
In his speech, Modi strongly defended his intervention in Kashmir.
The right-wing prime minister called it a “historic decision” and added: “I have full belief that we will be able to free Jammu and Kashmir from terrorism and separatism under this (new) system.”
He accused Pakistan of taking advantage of the region's special status to stir troubles there.