May 28, 2015 / 3:27 PM / 2 years ago

Dozens of cell phone towers in Kashmir shut down after attacks

SRINAGAR, India, May 28 (Reuters) - Dozens of communications towers have been shut down in an area of Indian-administered Kashmir after a string of attacks and threats by militants, who say cell phone services are being used to target their members.

Militants have also threatened local people, and in the past five days shot dead one man who was working at a mobile phone shop in the Sopore area and another man who had a cell phone tower installed on his property, police said. Three other people were injured in attacks.

More than 50 towers in the Sopore area of northern Kashmir have been taken out of service, nearly shutting down public communications in the vicinity, police said.

"The cellular services are down and we are trying to restore them in a couple of days," SJM Gillani, police chief for the Kashmir region, told Reuters.

Earlier this month, a previously unknown militant group called Lashkar-e-Islam warned people working for or with telecoms companies to stop, saying that cell phone services were being used to target members of the group.

Officials have expressed concerns that the violent targeting of something as ubiquitous as cell phone usage could create panic in Kashmir, a heavily militarised region where a separatist insurgency has simmered for years.

"(The militants) have challenged the writ of the government," a senior security officer told Reuters.

Companies affected include Aircel, a unit of Malaysia's Maxis Communications Bhd, Airtel, Vodafone (IPO-VODA.BO), Reliance Communications and Idea Cellular, police said.

Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance declined to comment, while the other companies could not immediately be reached for comment.

UNKNOWN GROUP

Last week, posters bearing the name of Lashkar-e-Islam appeared in the Sopore area, demanding phone companies shut down their operations.

"Due to these cellphone companies, our commanders and militant brothers have been arrested or killed," read one poster.

"We warn all the people associated with the telecom companies to stop working for them and tower site owners to dismantle the towers. We also warn shopkeepers who recharge cell phones to stop it. If not, they will be killed," it said.

In the latest incident a man who had rented out part of his property to a tower was shot and critically injured in the town of Pattan.

Police, however, said on Thursday that another local separatist group called Hizbul Mujahideen may be behind the spate of attacks.

The security officer told Reuters he thought the militants may be trying to prevent people from sharing intelligence with security agencies to help counter-insurgency efforts in Kashmir Valley.

Separatists in divided Kashmir, which is claimed by both Pakistan and India, have been fighting security forces in the Indian-administered part of the region since 1989, although the frequency of attacks has waned.

Police, meanwhile, said they had arrested some of the individuals involved in this week's attacks, but did not disclose their identities or affiliation.

"Providing security to towers is a huge task, then there are franchises, re-charge shops and people associated with these companies," a senior police officer told Reuters.

"If it is the militants' strategy to create fear, then it is a challenge, but we will overcome it," he said. (Additional reporting by Nivedita Bhattarcharjee in Mumbai; Editing by Krista Mahr/Douglas Busvine/Susan Fenton)

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