By Alasdair Pal and Fayaz Bukhari
SRINAGAR/AWANTIPORA, India, July 19 (Reuters) - More than 300 people died in the Kashmir region claimed by India and Pakistan in the first half of the year, according to previously unreported data - one of the deadliest periods in the disputed territory's recent history.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and came close to a third in February, after a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based militant group killed at least 40 paramilitary police. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded by giving security forces "a free hand" to respond.
The impact of that surge on the Muslim-majority valley in the Himalayas is clear, according to interviews with Indian officials, rights groups and the families of two victims of the conflict mentioned in a United Nations report this month: a school principal who died in police custody and a 12-year-old boy killed after being taken hostage by militants.
Such deaths show how the pick-up in violence is being felt at all levels of the community.
India launched 177 cordon and search operations - in which troops seal off an area and conduct a security sweep - in the first half of the year, according to the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCSS), the leading human rights group in the region, up from 116 in the same period last year.
One in three of those led to gun-battles between militants and troops in which at least one person was killed, according to previously unpublished data from JKCSS.
That has made the first half of 2019 one of the deadliest in recent memory, with 301 deaths on both sides of the contested border, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a global database of violent incidents in conflict zones. That would be the worst six-month period since it began publishing data from both parts of Kashmir in 2016.
An overlapping data set from JKCSS, which does not include those that died in Pakistan's portion of the region - mainly in cross-border shelling between the two nations after the February bombing - puts the death toll in the first half of 2019 at 271, on a par with last year, which it says was the deadliest in a decade.
DEATH IN CUSTODY
One of those killed during the period was Rizwan Pandit, the school principal who died in police custody.
Police arrived to search the south Kashmir home of Pandit, a 29-year-old chemistry graduate, before midnight on March 17, according to interviews with family members who were present at the time.
"They found nothing: we are common people," his brother, Mubashir Assad Pandit, told Reuters.
Pandit was taken to Awantipora police station, a high-walled compound ringed by barbed wire yards from the family home, before being moved to an interrogation unit in Srinagar, Kashmir's main city. It was there that he died the next evening, according to the family and an official in Kashmir who is privy to the investigation into the death.
Police told the family they filed a report accusing him of trying to escape from custody, but did not say how he died and refused to let them see the report or his autopsy records.
Mubashir showed Reuters photos of what he said was his brother's body after it was released by the police. The photos showed repeated deep laceration marks on his legs and bruising on his face.
Pandit "appears to have been tortured while in custody", the July 8 report from the U.N.'s human rights agency said.
Dilbagh Singh, the director general of police for Jammu and Kashmir, did not respond to requests for comment on Pandit's death.
The attitude of security forces to those believed to be sympathetic to militants is hardening, an Indian security official said, a process that began two years ago after the killing of a prominent militant leader, but has grown stronger since the February attack.
"Troops have been given a free hand," he said, referencing the speech given by Modi a day after the February bombing, claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammed Islamist militant group.
Kashmir, which is known for its natural beauty, including mountains, rivers and orchards, is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, but has been divided between them since they gained independence from colonial power Britain in 1947.
Tens of thousands have been killed since 1989, the start of an armed rebellion in India's portion of the region that New Delhi accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Islamabad denies this, saying it provides only diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri separatist movement.
Indian security forces and armed groups resisting their rule are both showing increasing aggression, according to the report from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as the battle over Kashmir enters its fourth decade.
New Delhi rejects the conclusion of the U.N. report accusing it of human rights abuses, calling it a "false and motivated narrative" on the state of the region.
"Its assertions are in violation of India's sovereignty and territorial integrity and ignore the core issue of cross-border terrorism," India's Foreign Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in a statement.
India is not alone in being accused of rights abuses in Kashmir. Militant groups, most of whom have their headquarters in Pakistan, have become increasingly willing to inflict collateral damage on civilians, according to the U.N. report.
Days after Pandit's death in March, 12-year old Atif Mir was taken hostage by militants in Bandipora, in north Kashmir, along with six other relatives. The two militants, from the Lashkar-e-Taiba group, were both from Pakistan and unwilling to release Mir, despite repeated pleas from the family and troops that surrounded the house, relatives said.
"They beat us and we were kept bound in a room," said Abdul Hamid Mir, the boy's uncle and one of those also taken hostage.
The family straddles both sides of the Kashmir conflict. Abdul Hamid said that several members of his family had previously joined militant groups. But Asif attended an army-run school and was preparing for entry tests at a boarding school run by India's defence ministry when he was taken as a hostage.
The family said they had never seen the men before, who did not explain why they had taken hostages.
Mir was eventually killed in crossfire between the militants and troops, which also burnt the family's home to the ground, witnesses said – an increasingly common end to gun battles in recent years.
A police spokesman said Mir "was brutally killed by (militants) and could not be rescued from their clutches".
At 43, the number of civilians killed is down on last year. But 120 militants and 108 troops were killed in the first half of the year, according to JKCSS data - the worst tolls on both sides of the border since it began tracking deaths a decade ago.
A second Indian security official familiar with operations in Kashmir said troops were suffering heavy casualties due to increasing fearlessness from militants.
"Previously they used to run, but in the last year or two they now fight and die inside the house, or come out firing when the cordon is being set," said the official.
Asif Mir's grief-stricken father, Mohammed Shafi, described his son as a brilliant student and a keen cricketer.
"They have caused a lot of fear," he said. "There is a lot of anger amongst the people about what they have done."
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal in SRINAGAR and Fayaz Bukhari in AWANTIPORA, additional reporting by Christian Inton in SINGAPORE; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson)
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