(Updates with comment from security force commander)
By By Fayaz Bukhari
SRINAGAR, India, July 18 (Reuters) - Indian paramilitary soldiers fired at protesters in the Kashmir region on Thursday, killing four and wounding 40 members of a crowd demonstrating against what they said was the desecration of the Koran by Indian security forces.
India has for decades faced opposition to its rule in the divided Muslim-majority Himalayan region though violence by Muslim separatist rebels has fallen off significantly in recent years.
Members of the Border Security Force (BSF) had opened fire on protesters in the Gool area, killing four and wounding 40, said interior minister of state for the region, Sajjad Kitchloo.
The inspector general of the BSF, Rajive Krishan, told a news conference the deaths occurred when his men and police fired to disperse a violent mob trying to get into a post where arms and ammunition were stored.
"Our men used the force for self defence," Krishan said.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, both of which claim all of the territory. They have fought two of their three wars over the region and India accuses Pakistan of supporting separatist rebels fighting its rule in its part of Kashmir since 1989.
Muslim Pakistan denies arming the rebels, saying it only offers them political support.
Protesters said four members of the BSF had barged into an Islamic school in Dadad village on Wednesday night and beaten students and desecrated the Koran, the Muslim holy book.
"As the news spread, people came out in protest which continued throughout the night," said one protester, Mehjoor Dar. More protesters came out on Thursday.
Another protester, Ghulam Nabi, said about 5,000 people had gathered outside a BSF camp, some throwing stones, when members of the force opened fire.
Krishan rejected the protesters' accusation that his men had desecrated the Koran. He said "anti-national elements" had instigated the protest.
India's Interior Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, said he was saddened by the loss of life and appealed for calm. He said he had ordered an inquiry into what led to the violence.
"Any use of excessive force or irresponsible action shall be dealt with strictly," Shinde said.
Protesters also clashed with police in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, 175 km (110 miles) from where the shooting took place, and some blocked the main road south to the city of Jammu. (Writing by Robert Birsel; Ediing by Ron Popeski)