SRINAGAR, India -- A government official said Thursday that Indian army troops raped 23 women in a border village last month in one of the worst incidents of abuse since troops entered the Kashmir Valley to put down a Muslim uprising.
Divisional Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said the charges were leveled against the soldiers by District Magistrate S.M. Yasin of Kupwara, a border town 60 miles northwest of the Jammu and Kashmir capital of Srinagar.
A spokesman for the state government described the allegation as baseless and 'planted' to malign soldiers.
But Habibullah said police filed charges of criminal assault and rape against the soldiers on March 8, 13 days after the alleged sexual assault against 23 women residents of Kunan Poshpora, a village near the Kupwara town.
Police sources said about 40 soldiers of the Rajputana Rifles, a renowned infantry brigade of the Indian army, cordoned off Kunan Poshpora on the night of Feb. 23, ordered male residents out of their homes, locked them in a building, then 40 soldiers raped the 23 women.
Yasin, in a secret report to Habibullah, said the victims included a 60-year-old woman and a young mother who had given birth only a week before.
In his report, the district magistrate said during his visit to the village he was shown torn clothes of the victims and the rooms where women were raped.
Kashmir Police Chief Jitendra Narain Saksena said an army brigadier sent to the village for investigation returned saying he received no complaints from the residents.
Authorities have ordered a high-level investigation into the allegations.
Several civil right groups have in the past accused the soldiers of human right violations, reporting cases of rape, torture and incidents where security forces burned down large sections of towns.
Kupwara, situated along the Indo-Pakistan border, has witnessed several clashes between security forces and Muslim militants, who are waging a bloody campaign for secession of Kashmir from India.