Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Protests have erupted in India-administered Kashmir after six civilians were killed when an unexploded shell went off at the site of a gunfight in the southern district of Kulgam, officials said.
Senior superintendent of police in Kulgam, Harmeet Singh, told Al Jazeera on Sunday that the forces had laid a midnight cordon around a dozen houses in Laroo village of the district on a specific information about the presence of rebels.
“By morning, three militants were killed who were hiding in one of the houses. There was an exchange of gunfire and grenades from both sides,” the official said.
The official said the rebels were locals and belonged to the south Kashmir villages of Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag.
“When the fight was over, the forces cleared the area and left. There was stone-throwing from all sides by the people even during the encounter. Despite requests not to visit the site, locals approached the gunfight site and a shell exploded,” he said.
Deputy commissioner of the district, Shamim Ahmad, told Al Jazeera that six civilians died in the blast and 30 others were wounded, some of them in the clashes.
“The situation is under control and curfew has been imposed. Phone and internet services have been suspended,” the official said.
After the news of the killings spread, the residents in large numbers in the villages of south Kashmir took to the streets, raising anti-India slogans.
Thousands of troopers were rushed to guard the streets as curfew was imposed in the volatile villages of the district, according to officials.
At many places, stone-throwing youth clashed with the security forces.
Bashir Ahmad, a local from Laroo village in Kulgam, said he saw “four dead bodies lying on the ground after a huge explosion”.
“When the crowd tried to go near the house which was in flames, there was an earth-shaking explosion. The people were trying to douse the flames and stop the fire from spreading,” he said.
“I was present at some distance. Everyone ran for survival. What followed was just smoke and dust. It seemed the darkness fell all around. When we went back, I saw four dead bodies with my own eyes and those who were alive were taken to the hospital,” he added.
Another resident, Muhammad Shaban, from the same village alleged that the “army did not clear the site after the gunfight was over”.
“In Kashmir, civilians are treated like animals. The Indian army leaves the shells at the site. It has happened in the past, too, and has even killed children who fiddle with the shells,” a resident said.
“They use heavy ammunition even while fighting one militant,” the villager said, adding that one of those killed was a 10-year-old boy, but it could not be officially confirmed.
The districts of southern Kashmir have emerged as the epicentre of anti-India protests in the last two years after the killing of young rebel commander Burhan Wani in July 2016. Wani’s killing sparked civilian uprising for five long months.
The rebels enjoy an overwhelming support in the region as people often march towards gunfight sites to help them escape.
To protest the killing, Kashmiri separatist leaders, who demand an independent state or merger with Pakistan, have called for a complete shutdown in the region on Monday.
The violence in the region, meanwhile, continues since Friday when a six-month pregnant woman was killed in crossfire in Pulwama village.
Last week, two rebels and a civilian were killed in an early morning gunfight in the main city of Srinagar, which had triggered massive clashes.
“The accused are saying they (civilians) were killed by a shell. How do we believe them?” Khurram Parvez, a Kashmir-based human rights defender in the region, told Al Jazeera.
“The army uses excessive grenades and leaves them without even sanitising the site. We demand an investigation by the UN. The use of excessive force and ammunition be also taken into account,” he said.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among the Muslim-majority residents of the disputed territory. The gunfights are often followed by civilian protests leading to causalities.