Indian troops killed four rebel fighters in gun battles in Indian-administered Kashmir, including the senior commander of the biggest separatist group fighting New Delhi in the disputed Himalayan region.
Hundreds of Indian soldiers launched an operation late on Tuesday after receiving intelligence that Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo was hiding in a village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Naikoo’s death is being seen as a major victory for India’s counterinsurgency efforts and is likely to spark more unrest in the disputed region.
Police and army soldiers launched the operation in the Awantipora area in southern Kashmir based on a tip that some rebel commanders were sheltering there.
They used earth movers to dig up several patches of land, including a school playground, looking for possible underground hideouts, residents said.
Troops blasted at least two civilian homes with explosives, a common tactic employed by Indian troops in Kashmir.
“He was trapped in a house and early today a gun battle took place during which he and his associate were killed,” Kashmir’s inspector general of police, Vijay Kumar, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
Two rebels were killed in another firefight nearby, Kumar added.
Naikoo, 35, joined the separatists in 2012, two years after about 100 people were killed by troops during a restive summer marked by protests and violence.
A former mathematics teacher with a bounty of 1.2 million rupees ($15,800) on his head, Naikoo was an aide to the charismatic Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was killed in July 2016, leading to months of unrest.
After Wani’s death, Naikoo helped give new life to the rebel movement. He unified the ranks, which had been divided by splinter factions.
Dibyesh Anand, who teaches international relations at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, told Al Jazeera that Naikoo’s killing will make “the relationship between Kashmir and India much worse than what it is”.
“What’s likely to happen is more frustration, more anger, more anxiety that ordinary Kashmiri population would have,” he said.
“The main intention of [India’s] Hindu nationalist government is not only to completely occupy Kashmir, but also to erase any form of resistance that Kashmiris have.”
Authorities disabled mobile internet across the Kashmir region early on Wednesday to prevent large crowds from gathering in the streets to mourn Naikoo’s killing.
Still, locals came out and pelted soldiers with stones in an attempt to disrupt the operation in which Naikoo was killed, Kumar said, adding that demonstrators had to be beaten back by troops.
“Several protesters have received pellet injures and three of them have bullet wounds. They have been hospitalised,” he said.
In all, at least 30 people were injured as protesters clashed with security forces in around a dozen spots across Kashmir, including in the main city of Srinagar, another police official said.
Protesters set fire to two police vehicles in Pulwama, the official said, declining to be named since he was not authorised to speak to media.
Amid a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Indian troops have intensified operations in Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, which was split into two federally administered territories last August.
Since late March, Indian forces have killed 36 rebels while losing about 20 soldiers, including a high-ranking army officer.
For decades, separatists have fought against Indian rule in Kashmir, wanting independence for the Himalayan region or to join Pakistan.
Kashmir is claimed in whole but ruled in part by both India and Pakistan. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.
There also has been almost daily fighting over the last several months along the rugged and mountainous frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.