ANANTNAG, INDIA -- Indian security forces unable to quell a broadly popular secessionist uprising in disputed Kashmir state are burning houses and shops in this valley, killing dozens of civilians and rendering thousands homeless as winter approaches, according to witnesses.

During the last several months, a dozen major fires have erupted in Srinagar, Anantnag, Handwara, Sopore and other Kashmiri towns where Moslem militants are pressing a violent secessionist campaign with weapons obtained in Pakistan. In virtually every case, witnesses report that Indian troops set houses and shops on fire with flammable powder and gasoline immediately following an ambush attack by guerrillas.

Suspicious fires break out in Kashmir at least once a week, but the most recent big blaze occurred Oct. 27 here in Anantnag, a city of about 200,000. Fire chief Bashir Abbasi got the call two hours after a guerrilla attack on soldiers in the city. Flames were sweeping through the crowded China Square section. Abbasi and his men climbed in their firetrucks and raced to the scene.

Indian paramilitary forces greeted them with gunfire, according to Abbasi and other firemen. Two bullets struck fireman Ghulam Ganai, severing a finger and wounding him in the chest. His firetruck crashed when he slumped at the wheel.

Indian troops shuttled back and forth to the flames, toting gasoline in their steel helmets and spreading flammable powder on the floors of houses not yet ablaze, according to about a dozen independent witnesses. Challenged by China Square residents, the soldiers reportedly answered, "This is your freedom! See your freedom!"

Today, China Square is a heap of bricks and rubble. More than 100 homes, dozens of shops and three mosques were destroyed in the fire. Residents pick through the remains of their houses, pulling out gnarled appliances and raking debris into neat piles.

The fires here and across Kashmir mark a new and destructive phase in the stalemated civil warfare between Kashmir's Moslem majority population and the government of Hindu-majority India. The violence in Kashmir has claimed an estimated 2,000 lives this year.

Long-simmering grievances among Kashmir's Moslem population erupted into open rebellion last January. Although the indigenous uprising is widely popular with Kashmiris, the conflict has been complicated by rivalry between India and Pakistan over the state.

India claims sovereignty over Kashmir, while Pakistan supports Kashmiri militants and urges that residents be allowed to choose their future in a plebiscite. The two countries have fought three wars along Kashmir's border since 1947.

Senior Indian officials insist they have had nothing to do with the recent rash of fires. They say that while some fires may have been set by enraged paramilitary forces in retaliation for ambush attacks, other blazes have been started by militants to discredit the security forces. "Our directive {to the troops} is that it should not happen," said Jameel Qureshi, a senior adviser on law-and-order matters to Kashmir's governor.

Pressed for evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that Moslem guerrillas have set many of the fires -- a claim few Kashmiris believe -- four senior government and paramilitary officials said that earlier this month, Moslem militants fired rockets at firetrucks attempting to reach a blaze in Budgam, 10 miles from the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. The officials implied that the blaze was set by militants, who then shot at firemen to prevent them from putting it out.

But Budgam's fire chief, Ghulam Rathar, said there was no such fire. On the night in question, guerrillas fired a rocket at paramilitary forces bunkered next to the fire house, he said. The rocket missed and blew a small hole in the fire station's wall, causing no injuries, Rathar said.

In any event, the fires have made an impression on Kashmir Valley's heavily armed separatist guerrillas. Khalid, the nom de guerre of a Moslem militant in Anantnag, who arrived for an interview with a Chinese-marked AK-47 assault rifle under his coat, said the blazes have caused his People's League secessionist group to shift tactics, forcing the guerrillas out of urban slums where they were protected by twisting alleys and sympathetic residents.

"We've totally changed our strategy," Khalid said. "We're not going into towns now. We go into fields and attack army camps. We are doing this to reduce the sufferings of the people. It is more of a risk, but it is necessary."

Ten months after the Kashmir uprising began in earnest, the militants appear to be far from independence or accession to Pakistan, but the Indian government appears to face deepening alienation among the Kashmiri population.

Continuing excesses by Indian troops in the valley -- including the abduction and rape last month of a Canadian woman vacationing in Srinagar, for which two paramilitary officers have been dismissed pending charges -- have fueled the anger of militants and ordinary Kashmiris alike.

Dozens of Kashmiris in three cities said in interviews that they were determined to fight the Indian forces indefinitely, despite recent hardships caused by fires, strikes, power outages and economic decline.

Indian government officials insist that they are trying to convince Kashmiris that New Delhi does not endorse excesses by security forces. They say they are prosecuting 37 cases against Indian troops in Kashmir accused of rape, murder or arson. But the stiffest punishment handed out in these cases has been suspension from duty.

Efforts by Kashmir's governor, G.C. Saxena, a former chief of India's main intelligence agency, to use covert operations to engineer infighting among the valley's nine or 10 active guerrilla groups have produced few tangible results so far.

Guerrillas with four different separatist factions say Saxena has begun to turn captured guerrillas into government agents, releasing them with instructions to sow dissension among the insurgents.

Aamir, the nom de guerre of a commando with a splinter group of the People's League, said four such alleged agents had been captured by his group after attempting to extort money and jewelry from a guerrilla supporter. The four alleged agents have been tried and convicted by a guerrilla court and will soon have their hands cut off, a traditional Islamic punishment for theft, Aamir said.

Indian officials say this and other similar cases reflect the brutality of the armed Kashmiri militants against their own people, not the exposure of governmental covert operations.

Executions by guerrillas of suspected police informants appear to have angered and frightened even Kashmiris who are sympathetic to the separatists. One radical Islamic fundamentalist group, Al Ummar, twice recently has tied bombs to accused informants and exploded them in public marketplaces. But even these extreme cases do not appear to have affected the broad support for separatist guerrillas among ordinary Kashmiris.

Still, Kashmir's Moslem guerrillas have not forged effective political or military unity. Although recently they have acquired such destructive weapons as rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank mines, the guerrillas have mounted only hit-and-run assaults on the tens of thousands of well-equipped army and paramilitary soldiers stationed in the valley. Such attacks have kept the soldiers on edge but have not challenged their control of Kashmir's streets and highways.

On the political side, the guerrillas have done little to reconcile differences between nationalist groups in their ranks that favor independence for Kashmir and Islamic fundamentalist groups that advocate accession to Moslem Pakistan.