AJK witnesses calm as protesters call off march

——— Shutter-down strike to be observed to honour protest victims
——— JAAC cites govt’s announcement of reduced flour, electricity prices
——— Constitution of judicial commission suggested by forum

ISLAMABAD: Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC), an alliance of civil rights group, on Tuesday called off a protest march in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) after several days of clashes over high prices in which four people were killed and over 100 injured, officials said.
Protesters called off the march a day after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif approved a grant of 23 billion rupees to help meet most of their demands, which included subsidies on flour and electricity prices. The alliance’s head, Shaukat Nawaz Mir, announced the decision in Muzaffarabad, the capital city of the scenic Himalayan region. “The government has accepted all of our demands,” he said, calling on protesters to return to their homes and businesses.
Mir also demanded the government give financial compensation for the families of three protesters and a police official who were killed in the violence.
The protesters were killed on Monday evening after the Rangers opened fire when they were at-tacked, said local government official Adnan Khurshid. The police official died in clashes over the weekend.
Three people lost their lives and at least another six sustained injuries following firing and teargas shelling by the Rangers personnel in the state capital, according to officials and witnesses.
The Rangers — who had been invited to maintain law and order — were supposed to return after the announcement in Islamabad by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif regarding provision of Rs23bn to AJK and subsequent issuance of notifications by the AJK government, considerably cutting down the price of electricity and wheat flour.
However, instead of returning back from Brarkot — AJK’s last village on its border with Khyber Pakh-tunkhwa (KP) — their convoy, comprising 19 pick-ups and five trucks, drove to Muzaffarabad to exit the territory via Kohala.
Video clips shared on social media showed that while the convoy was on its way to Muzaffarabad, it was first pelted with stones near Shorran da Nakka village, to which they responded with firing and teargas shelling.
A social media clip verified by Dawn showed three Rangers vehicles ablaze on the Muzaffarabad-Brarkot road.
After entering the city through the Western Bypass, the Rangers were welcomed with rocks again, prompting them to use teargas and bullets. The shelling was so intense that the entire neighbourhood reeled from it.
This correspondent saw two local elders approaching the Rangers and escorting them to safety via a link road. However, witnesses said that the Rangers had resorted to teargas
Shelling and firing in the air in another area as well before the administration drove their vehicles to safety.
Divisional Commissioner Muzaffarabad Sardar Adnan Khurshid told Dawn that at least three persons had died in firing by Rangers and another six had suffered wounds. The commissioner identified the deceased as Saqib, son of Shabir from Plate; Waqar, son of Babu from Dara Batangi; and Azhar, son of Majeed from Chehla Bandi areas of Muzaffarabad.
After the talks’ failure on Sunday night, the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC) had asked the protesters to resume their march on the state capital.
The rallies made a stopover in Dhirkot, about 80km from the capital, where the administration eng­aged their leaders on Monday until the conclusion of the meeting convened by PM Shehbaz in Islamabad.
After the subsidy was announced by the government, the movement leaders said they would decide about it after the issuance of notifications.
Subsequently, the AJK food department issued a notification, bringing the price of flour/40kg to Rs2,100 and that of electricity to Rs3, Rs5, and Rs6 per unit for up to 100, 300 and more than 300 units, respectively.
The notifications immediately went viral on social media and preparations were underway to welcome the JAAC leaders in Muzaffarabad and to celebrate the victory.
According to witnesses, some rallies clashed with the police in Chattar Chowk, where police had to re-sort to teargas shelling to disperse them.
In response to the violence, the Public Action Committee in Muzaffarabad issued a statement after holding a joint meeting, demanding all cases be dropped and the release of those arrested.
They also necessitated that the investigation by the Muzaffarabad Judicial Commission be made public and “those responsible should be punished”.
The Committee also announced a mourning day and shutter down strike today “for the three mar-tyred in protests”.
AJK Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Chaudhry on Monday expressed gratitude towards prime minister Shehbaz Sharif for convening an important meeting of all stakeholders, where he announced an im-mediate relief package of Rs23bn for AJK people.
“Both these issues which had been pending for a long time were linked with the federal government. And on the instructions of the Prime Minister of Pakistan these have been resolved in minutes for which I am grateful to him,” he said, adding, the relief announced would be made part of the next budget.
Responding to questions, he said no single cabinet member had cast aspersions on the policy of the government.
“Ours is a coalition government and each coalition partner has its own ideology and party politics, but the government is functioning under collective wisdom,” he said.
The AJK prime minister said that the funds would help lower some prices in the region.
The subsidised rate for 40 kgs (88.2 lb) of flour will be 2,000 rupees, down from 3,100 rupees, he said. He also announced a substantial dip in the electricity prices.
The protests coincide with the visit of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission to negotiate a new long-term loan with Islamabad.
The IMF has already warned that social tensions triggered by the high cost of living could weigh on pol-icy implementation, adding that fiscal slippages could present a challenge for the government. –Agencies