Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir said they scored a major victory with Thursday’s killing of an alleged top commander of a banned militant outfit during a shootout with security forces.
Pakistani citizen and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Abdul Rehman – better known as Abu Qasim – was one of the most wanted militants in the restive Himalayan region, and had a 2 million-rupee (U.S. $30,500-) bounty on his head, according to Indian news reports.
He was killed Thursday morning when a gun battle erupted during a joint search operation by police and army units in Kulgam, a district in southern Kashmir, police said.
"Abu Qasim was killed in the operation," Manoj Pandita, a police spokesman, told BenarNews.
At press time, the LeT had not confirmed Qasim’s death.
The fatal firefight took place as security forces mounted the operation and laid a cordon to search for Qasim, after they obtained a tip that he was in the vicinity of Khandaypora, a village near Kulgam town.
"The militant was killed when he tried to break the cordon. The killing of Qasim is a big success for the security forces," Kashmir Police Inspector-General Syed Javid Mujtaba Gilani said.
Later in the day, clashes broke out between Indian security personnel and locals protesting Qasim’s death. The security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Thousands of area residents had turned out for his funeral procession, chanting anti-India slogans.
"We will continue to fight against Indian rule," Waseem Ahmad, a 22-year-old villager who took part in the protests, told BenarNews.
Kashmir, part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, is predominantly Muslim and has been caught in a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947.
A separatist insurgency has raged there for decades, and the LeT is one of the region’s main militant groups. Indian authorities have also accused LeT operatives of being involved in terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2006 and 2008 that killed hundreds of people.
Qasim’s death leaves vacuum
According to police, Qasim masterminded an attack by militants in Udhampur district on Aug. 5 that killed two Indian security personnel and injured 12 others.
He also was involved in the killing of an Indian police officer, Mohammad Altaf Dar, in northern Kashmir on Oct. 7.
And in June 2013, "He was part of the LeT squad which carried out a Fidayeen attack at Hyderpora Srinagar Bypass in which eight Army Jawans were killed," Pandita, the police spokesman, said.
In the last two months, Qasim had twice eluded capture during other shootouts with security forces, a senior army officer told BenarNews.
"It is a huge success for the entire security grid," the officer said on condition of anonymity.
"His killing is a huge setback to the Lashkar in the valley," Sameer Patil, a fellow in national security studies at Gateway House, a think-tank based in Mumbai, told Benar News, referring to the Himalayan valley in which Kashmir is nestled.
"But the security forces need to maintain their vigil as with Qasim's killing, local militants of Hizbul Mujahideen, in South Kashmir, will try to wrest control of militancy in the valley," Patil warned.