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Saturday, June 20, 1998 Published at 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK

World: South Asia

Appeal for unity after Kashmir killings

The attack took place in the mountainous district of Doda

The chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has appealed to Hindus and Muslims to stand united against acts of terror, following the shooting dead of 25 Hindus from a wedding party on Friday.

The minister, Farooq Abdullah, was speaking as the search for the killers continues. Large areas have been sealed off by the security forces.

Parties on all sides have condemned the massacre, and the separatist All-Party Hurriyat Conference demanded an independent investigation.

The BBC's Andrew Whitehead reports from Delhi
The police believe that Muslim Kashmiri separatists were responsible for the attack and they say their main concern is to prevent any backlash.

The killings took place at Champnagri town, in the mountainous Doda district, 175 kilometres north-east of Jammu city in an area populated by both Hindus and Muslims. It is the second big massacre of Hindus in the area this year.

All those killed - including the groom - have been cremated according to Hindu custom. The men were singled out and shot before the gunmen fled, taking jewellery and cash with them. The bride was among the handful who survived.

Shops and businesses in Doda closed for the day in protest against the massacre.

Armed separatists

On Saturday, All India Radio reported that police had identified the leader of the five-member gang responsible for the killings as a member of the banned Hizbul Mujahideen, the armed wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami separatist group.

[ image: Indian PM Vajpayee: take
Indian PM Vajpayee: take "sternest" action against killers
The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, said he was ordering the Indian Kashmiri authorities to take the "sternest" actions against the killers.

The Indian Home Minister, LK Advani, has said he believes the separatists are trying to frighten Hindus out of the hills bordering the Kashmir Valley. He said extra measures would be taken to flush out the armed militants.

Mr Abdullah, condemned the killings, describing them as "the handiwork of Pakistani agents."

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

The massacre comes at a time when Mr Abdullah and the Hindu Nationalist-led central government have been talking of a new drive to combat the armed separatists.

The authorities maintain that the separatists have the active backing of Pakistan, although Pakistan has always denied arming or funding them.

Ownership of Kashmir, with its majority Muslim population, has been the subject of dispute between India and Pakistan since they gained independence 50 years ago and has sparked two wars between them.

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