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European Parliament members to visit disputed Kashmir

NEW DELHI (AP) — Members of the European Parliament met Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of a visit to disputed Kashmir, where India has imposed a harsh security crackdown. Modi told the group that their visit "should give them a clear view of the development and governance priorities of the region."

They are to fly Tuesday to the restive Himalayan region, where restrictions remain in place nearly three months after India imposed the crackdown and stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. The Indian government earlier denied access to the region by U.N. special rapporteurs, U.S. congressmen and foreign journalists.

An official in the office of the Delegation of the European Union to India said the visit was unofficial and was being carried out by some members of the European Parliament in their personal capacity.

Reacting to the development, the former chief minister of the region, Mehbooba Mufti, said she hopes the visit indicates that the "iron curtain" imposed by India between Kashmir and the rest of the world is being lifted.

Mufti is among hundreds of pro-India leaders who had been sympathetic to the central government but have been held in makeshift jails or under house arrest since early August, when New Delhi sent tens of thousands of additional troops to the already heavily militarized region, imposed a sweeping curfew, arrested thousands, and cut virtually all communications.

Authorities have since eased some restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some mobile phone service. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or fear amid threats of violence.

As the crackdown continues, Kashmiris have quietly refused to resume their normal lives, confounding India at their own economic expense. "Kashmir will keenly watch how freely (the Parliament members) are allowed to move around and meet common people," said political scientist Noor Ahmed Baba. "The visit will only be worthwhile if the delegation is allowed to meet a cross-section of Kashmiri political opinion."

The sudden move to allow the delegation's visit to the Indian-administered region, formally named Jammu and Kashmir, was also questioned by India's main opposition party, Congress. "This is an outright insult to India's own Parliament and our democracy," senior party leader Jairam Ramesh said.

"When Indian political leaders have been prevented from meeting the people of J&K, what possessed the great chest-beating champion of nationalism to allow European politicians to visit J&K," he tweeted, referring to Modi.

Many Indian opposition leaders who earlier tried to visit the region were not allowed to do so or were sent back from the Srinagar airport by the authorities. Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both. The two countries have fought two wars over control of the region.

India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebels who have been fighting for Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan since 1989. Islamabad rejects India's charge and says it only provides moral and diplomatic support.

About 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown. The Modi government says it removed a constitutional provision that gave Kashmir some autonomy so the region could achieve greater economic development by doing away with the sense of separateness that it says cultivated the separatist movement.

Late Monday, a truck driver was shot dead by gunmen in the region's southern Anantnag district, police said. Narayan Dutt, a resident of Katra in Udhampur district, was the fourth truck driver to be killed by gunmen since early August.

Gunmen have targeted apple traders and truck drivers who were about to drive away with the apple consignment from the southern Shopian area in Kashmir. Officials have blamed militants for the killings.

Kashmir's apple orchards provide a livelihood for nearly half the region's 8 million people. Apple growers and traders are suffering losses as insurgent groups put pressure on traders and drivers to shun the industry to protest India's crackdown.

About 18 people were injured earlier Monday in a grenade attack by militants at a busy market in the northern Sopore area of Kashmir, officials said.

Associated Press writer Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar contributed to this report.

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