Diplomats from more than 20 countries arrive in India-administered Kashmir as residents of the disputed region's main city shutter shops and businesses in a sign of protest.

Members of foreign envoys are seen in the premises of a revered shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir on February 17, 2021.
Members of foreign envoys are seen in the premises of a revered shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir on February 17, 2021. (AA)

Diplomats from more than 20 countries have visited India-administered Kashmir as residents of the disputed region's main city closed their shops and businesses in protest of the guided tour. 

Wednesday's visit is a third by a group of foreign envoys stationed in India's capital since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and annexed it in August 2019, enforcing the change with a harsh crackdown that for a time included a complete communications blackout.

The diplomats were driven by Indian authorities in a motorcade amid tight security from the airport in Srinagar city to the western town of Magam, where they met officials and a select group of recently elected village councilors. Shops and businesses in Magam also shut in protest.

"Will their visit mean anything in our lives? Is there any hope that they will be able to find how our lives are controlled and intervene?" said Shabir Ahmed, a labourer in Magam. 

"In any case, I lost my wages today because their visit forced us to close our businesses."

The diplomats were also scheduled to meet a group of civil society members, traders, pro-India politicians and journalists. 

They were scheduled to fly to Jammu, the region's winter capital, on Thursday and return to New Delhi after spending a day there.

READ MORE: India takes 15 envoys to Kashmir but EU spurns 'guided tour'

Highly militarised region 

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety. Rebels in the region have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.

Before the 2019 change, Indian-controlled Kashmir was a state and had a semi-autonomous status that granted its natives special rights in land ownership and jobs.

In anticipation of a backlash against the removal of that autonomy, Indian authorities sent extra troops into the highly militarised region and launched a harsh security clampdown that cut off phone and internet access, shuttered schools and left hundreds of thousands without jobs. 

Many of the restrictions have since been eased, but India's security presence in the region remains high. More than 500,000 Indian troops are stationed in the region. 

Outside access to the region remains limited, with no foreign journalists allowed except ones who are taken on government-guided trips.

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Bunkers removed

Ahead of Wednesday’s arrival of the diplomats, authorities removed at least half a dozen security bunkers in Srinagar and its outskirts. 

Days before, India also lifted a ban on high-speed internet on mobile devices, ending the longest internet restrictions in a democracy.

Many Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. 

India has labelled the rebel movement terrorism. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels, and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

Wednesday's delegation comprised envoys from Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Eritrea, Estonia, Finland, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Netherlands, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Tajikistan, and the European Union.

READ MORE: India takes foreign envoys to disputed Kashmir in 'PR tour'

Pakistan slams 'smokescreen' event

India's move is a "smokescreen" aimed at diverting the world's attention from its human rights violations in the disputed region, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has said.

In a statement, it said such tours want to create "a false impression of "normalcy" in the Himalayan valley.

Pakistan has demanded India allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN observers, the OIC's Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, and international media, among others, to visit Kashmir, and assess the situation on the ground.

Source: AP