Suspected rebels have shot dead five soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir in the deadliest incident since February, an Indian army spokesman says.
“One JCO (junior commissioned officer) and four soldiers were killed during a search operation probably by infiltrators… The operation is ongoing,” Colonel Devender Anand said on Monday.
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The shootings occurred in a mountain pass near the Line of Control (LoC) dividing the disputed Himalayan territory between India and Pakistan.
The shootings were the deadliest attack on military forces in the area since a ceasefire between India and Pakistan along the de facto border was announced in February.
The Kashmir region in its entirety is claimed by both India and Pakistan, who have administered parts of it since their independence in 1947.
For more than three decades, rebel groups have been fighting the Indian soldiers, demanding either independence for Kashmir or its merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers and rebels have died in the fighting. India accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels, but Islamabad denies the allegations.
The region has been subjected to a legislative blitz since August 2019, with tensions soaring after New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, applying new laws and cancelling others.
Spate of killings
Tensions have been stoked again in recent weeks with a spate of shootings of civilians, including two teachers last week, in the area – attacks claimed by an anti-India rebel group.
Seven civilians were shot dead in six days last week, including two teachers on Thursday, sparking public outrage in Kashmir and across the country. Politicians from all sides have condemned the killings.
Nearly 500 residents suspected to have links with banned religious and rebel groups were detained across the disputed territory following the shootings, a senior police officer told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity on Sunday.
“No stone will be left unturned to find the killers,” the officer added.
A top anti-terrorism intelligence officer was sent by New Delhi to the region to head up the investigation.
Authorities say at least 29 civilians, including workers from pro-India political parties, have been shot dead in Indian-administered Kashmir so far this year.
Twenty-two of them were Muslims, officials added.
The two teachers, shot by gunmen at a government-run school, were from the Sikh and Hindu communities who are minorities in the Muslim-majority region.
A relatively new rebel group, The Resistance Front, has claimed responsibility and accused those killed of working for “occupier mercenary forces and occupier stooges”.
The statements, issued only in English, were circulated in several WhatsApp groups and could not be independently verified by Al Jazeera.
The killings have instilled fear among Indian-administered Kashmir’s minorities, with local media reporting that many were fleeing the region.
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch called for the alleged perpetrators as well as Indian security forces accused of abuses including harassment, torture and extrajudicial killings to be held accountable for their actions.
“Kashmiris are caught in unending violence from attacks by militants and abuses by government authorities and security forces,” HRW’s South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly said in a statement.