Indian opposition leaders denied entry to Kashmir

(Reuters) – Indian opposition leaders including former Congress president Rahul Gandhi were barred from leaving the airport on Saturday in Kashmir, where local authorities had warned that their visit could stoke heightened tension in the region.

The Jammu and Kashmir government said late on Friday political leaders had been asked not to visit Srinagar as the administration works to restore order after weeks of protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Aug 5 decision to withdraw autonomy for the state.

Rejecting the warning, the delegation of opposition leaders from parties including Congress, the Communist Party and the All India Trinamool Congress said they wanted to assess the situation in the valley, and flew from New Delhi on Saturday.

“If the situation is normal then why is the government restricting us from entering the valley. On the one hand, the government says that things are normal and on the other, they impose entry restrictions, why so many contradictions?” senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters before departing.

When their plane arrived in Srinagar, the politicians were not allowed to leave the airport and were sent back within a few hours.

Earlier in the day, senior officials told Reuters the administration in Kashmir had booked a return flight to New Delhi for the opposition leaders to prevent them from leaving the airport.

Tension remains high in Kashmir, with security forces using tear gas against stone-throwing protesters in Srinagar on Friday, after a third straight week of protests in the restive Soura district despite the imposition of tight restrictions.

The valley has been under lockdown since Modi’s decision to withdraw special rights for the Muslim-majority state.

It was the second time that senior opposition figures were denied entry to the state since the prime minister’s Aug 5 announcement. Communist party leaders were stopped at the Srinagar airport during their first visit.