A rebel commander and his associate have been killed by the Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir’s main city, authorities said, triggering anti-India protests and clashes in the disputed region.
Scores of counterinsurgency police and paramilitary soldiers cordoned off a neighbourhood in Srinagar’s old quarters on a tip that some rebels were hiding there, paramilitary spokesman Pankaj Singh said on Tuesday.
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Explosions and gunshots echoed through the densely populated neighbourhood, with streets largely empty as a result of a coronavirus lockdown that has kept most residents to their homes.
At least five homes were reduced to rubble during the gun battle and 10 others were severely damaged, residents told the AFP news agency.
Such clashes are a common occurrence in the disputed territory but rare in Srinagar, and the incident marked the first gun battle in the city in two years.
Top rebel killed
The 12-hour gun battle ended with the killing of Junaid Ashraf Sehrai, a commander of Kashmir’s largest rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, and his aide.
Junaid, son of senior separatist leader Mohammed Ashraf Sehrai, joined the rebel ranks in early 2018 after graduating in business management from the region’s main university.
Three soldiers and a police official were injured in the fighting, police said.
Residents accused the troops of setting the houses on fire and looting jewellery and cash from some homes. Singh said these were “baseless allegations to malign troops”.
“It was a clean operation with no collateral damage,” he said.
Security officials said Junaid’s killing was a major success against the rebels in Kashmir.
The deaths came two weeks after Hizbul Mujahideen chief Riyaz Naikoo and a close aide were killed by government forces in the southern Kashmir valley during a two-day gun battle.
Internet, phone services cut
As the gun battle raged, authorities cut off most mobile internet and voice call services in Srinagar, a common Indian tactic when fighting erupts in the region.
Defying the lockdown, locals poured onto the streets as news of the killings spread.
Scores of young men chanted anti-India and pro-rebel slogans and hurled stones at government forces, who fired tear gas and shotgun pellets to disperse them. No injuries were immediately reported.
New Delhi has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations across Indian-administered Kashmir in recent months. Police said 73 rebels had been killed in the Muslim-majority region this year.
In April alone, more than two dozen rebels and about a dozen Indian troops were killed, the most in any month since August 2019, when India revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and imposed direct federal rule.
On Sunday, a rebel and a soldier were killed in a gun battle in the remote Doda area.
Unlike in the past, authorities now bury slain rebels far away from their homes in unpopulated frontier areas to stop large funerals from being held.
The rebels have also continued their attacks on government forces and alleged informants amid the coronavirus pandemic, with almost daily fights along the rugged and mountainous frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Kashmir’s rebel groups have fought for decades for the region’s independence or its merger with Pakistan, resulting in nearly 70,000 deaths, mostly civilians, since 1989 when an armed uprising began.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the anti-India rebels. Pakistan denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the rebels and to Kashmiri civilians who oppose Indian rule.