SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday flagged off the first train service in Kashmir, where shops, schools and offices were shut in response to a strike call by separatists protesting his visit.
The train service in the Valley will eventually cover 117 km (73 miles) between Baramulla in the north and Qazigund in south Kashmir, ringed by conifer forests and snow-peaked mountains.
For now, only a 66-km stretch is operational, officials said.
In large newspaper advertisements on Saturday, Indian Railways said of the 20-billion rupee project ($412 million): “A Himalayan task meets with success,” describing it as a “vital link in national integration.”
Hundreds of workers have braved harsh weather conditions and militant attacks for about eight years to lay bridges and tracks across the mountainous region. An engineer and his brother were kidnapped by militants in 2005 and later killed.
New Delhi says the train service is aimed at bringing development to the remote areas of the strife-torn region.
“However, connecting the Kashmir Valley with the rest of India still remains a distant dream,” said Abdul Wahid, an engineer on the project.
Roads were deserted except for security patrols on Saturday in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, a day after at least two people were killed and about 75 wounded when police fired bullets and teargas shells to disperse Muslim demonstrators.
The strike was called by Kashmir’s main separatist alliance, All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference.
Tens of thousands of Indian troops thwarted a planned pro-independence rally earlier this week in Lal Chowk (Red Square), the historic center of Srinagar, and the government had banned public gatherings for a month.
Over the past two months the strife-torn region has seen some of the biggest anti-India protests since a separatist revolt in 1989. About 40 people have been killed by security forces and more than 1,000 wounded.
Singh, who is ending a two-day visit to the state accompanied by Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress Party, inaugurated a 450-megawatt hydro power project on Friday, and offered new dialogue with the separatists to end violence.
The latest round of protests come at a time when violence involving Indian troops and separatist guerrillas has declined significantly after India and Pakistan, which both claim the region, began a slow-moving peace process in 2004.
Editing by Rina Chandran and Jerry Norton