Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Four policemen and four paramilitary personnel were killed as rebels stormed a police installation in the southern part of this disputed territory.
The attack began around 4am on Saturday when a group of rebels breached the highly guarded district police base in Pulwama, 35km from Kashmir‘s main city Srinagar.
Local villagers said they were awoken in the early hours by an intense rattle of gunfire and explosions.
“We were sleeping when we heard the gunshots and then there was sound of blasts. We thought it will end but it kept happening again and again,” said Abdul Rashid, a resident of Pulwama town. “We have never heard such intensity of gunfire.”
Officials said rebels made a quick entry into the vast complex, which also houses residential quarters of policemen and their families and managed to barricade themselves inside at least two multistorey buildings.
In the fierce gunfight that ensued, four policemen and four paramilitary personnel were killed as the area reverberated with huge blasts.
“Four policemen and four Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed and four others were injured,” Director-General of Police Shesh Paul Vaid told Al Jazeera. “We have also recovered the bodies of two unknown militants who look foreign.
“The operation is still going on as we are searching the third building to find the body of the third militant,” he said.
The families of the policemen were evacuated and there was no hostage situation.
In a statement to local newspapers, the Jaish-e-Mohammad group claimed responsibility for the attack.
The operation to end the assault against the fighters continued throughout the day as hundreds of security forces and army personnel surrounded the area.
The gun battle also sparked protests in Pulwama villages as sympathetic residents threw stones at police and paramilitary soldiers and convoys heading towards the scene of the fight.
The raid comes at a time when the Indian army has launched a major counterinsurgency offensive in southern Kashmir districts, which have emerged as the epicentre of the region’s new age rebels.
More than 130 fighters have been killed by the army this year, officials say.
Saturday’s attack is one of the deadliest against Indian security forces in the disputed region where they are battling a resurgent rebellion.
Last year, armed rebels stormed an Indian army base near the frontier town of Uri, killing 18 soldiers.The attack in September last year caused new turbulence in the icy relations between India and Pakistan.
Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for the Indian-administered portion to become independent or merge with Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
India maintains roughly 500,000 soldiers in the territory.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among Kashmir’s mostly Muslim population and most support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule despite a decades-long military crackdown against the armed rebellion.
India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, an allegation that Pakistan denies.
Armed rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian forces in recent years, and public opposition to Indian rule is now principally expressed through street protests.