02 Nov 2006, Source: Reuters
By Sheikh Mushtaq
SRINAGAR, India, Nov 2 (Reuters) – His release was greeted with showers of rose petals and candies by his Muslim supporters and with outrage by Hindu groups, but Kashmiri rebel commander Farooq Ahmad Dar says he dreams of a state for all religions.
Dar spent 16 years in jail for his part in Kashmir's separatist insurgency and was charged with killing nearly two dozen Hindus, murders that helped spark a mass exodus of tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits.
He still denies murdering Hindus and told Reuters he would protect them if they returned to the Muslim-majority state.
"Kashmir belongs to them, we are incomplete without Pandits," the thinly bearded 38-year-old, popularly known as Bitta Karate, told Reuters late on Wednesday.
"If they return, I will protect them."
Dar, a former commander of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), said he had been beaten, chained, deprived of sleep and placed in solitary confinement for several years during more than 16 years of detention.
"It has strengthened my body, my will and my love for the freedom struggle," said Dar, dressed in the Kashmiri poncho, or Pheran. "In jail, I used to pray, read books and would exercise to keep myself fit."
Authorities say more than 250,000 Pandits fled Kashmir due to a rise in the killings of Hindus and attacks on their homes by suspected Muslim militants at the start of the rebellion.
Last week, hundreds of Kashmiri Muslims cheered Dar when he reached his narrow home in a congested and poor district of Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir state's summer capital.
But local Hindu organisations expressed shock and distaste at Dar's release.
"It is a shocking reflection of the state government's apathy towards serving the needs of justice," Panun Kashmir, an organisation of migrant Kashmiri Hindus, said in a statement.
The state's "law enforcing agencies failed, even after 17 years, to frame charges against a person who publicly proclaimed having lost count of the Pandits he had killed brutally in cold blood," the statement added.
Dar also faces trial over charges of murdering and attacking security forces, but was released last week for four months on bail on the condition he would not leave Kashmir without permission and reported to the police every fortnight.
After his release, he immediately joined a faction of JKLF which laid down its arms in 1994 and is now engaged in what it calls a political struggle for Kashmir's independence from both India and Pakistan.
Kashmir is divided between the two countries but is claimed in full by both. The 17-year insurgency has killed more than 45,000 people, officials say. But separatists claim tens of thousands more have died.