Police clashed with thousands of demonstrators Monday in Indian Kashmir as local residents rallied to protest the killings of six people, including four civilians, during an alleged shootout with soldiers manning a checkpoint overnight, officials said.
At least 30 demonstrators were injured and police detained scores of students who were protesting the killings that took place Sunday evening in southern Kashmir. Two suspected militants were slain in Sunday’s shootout and, on Monday, a top operative from another militant group was killed in an encounter with police elsewhere in south Kashmir, authorities said.
Fearing widespread protests, authorities on Monday ordered a shutdown of schools and postponed all exams across the disputed Himalayan region until Wednesday, as tension rose following the killings. Schools had been scheduled to re-open on Monday after a three-month winter break.
Indian security forces beefed up their presence across the region and officials blocked internet service in south Kashmir to maintain law and order, officials said.
Witnesses said several suspected militants added to the tension Monday when they appeared during the funerals of one of the slain men, displayed AK-47 assault rifles and offered a “gun salute” to show final respects to the departed.
LeT, JeM suspects killed
The Sunday evening shootout occurred when suspected militants travelling in two private vehicles opened fire at an Army mobile checkpoint on the outskirts of Shopian, about 55 km (34 miles) south of Srinagar city, said Col. Rajesh Kalia, a military spokesman who is based there.
“The vehicles, one following the other, were signaled to stop and a searchlight was flashed on the vehicles by the troops,” he said. “But the militants fired at the troops from both the vehicles.”
The soldiers retaliated and killed two suspected members of Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in the gunfight that ensued, Army officials said, adding that four civilians in one of the two vehicles also died.
Military officials said they had recovered a rifle from one of the slain militants, but local residents disputed the Army’s version of events. Local authorities vowed to investigate.
“Even if civilians were travelling in a car and unintentionally followed the car in which militants were travelling, the Army could have saved their lives by retaliating with caution,” Nazir Ahmad, a Shopian resident, told BenarNews.
Kashmir, home to a separatist insurgency for decades, is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, but each country controls only part of it. More than 70,000 people have died in flare-ups of insurgency-related violence since the late 1980s, officials said.
In 2016, about 325 people, including protesters and suspected insurgents, died in the region in months of unrest, officials said.
Also on Monday, a top militant of another Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) was killed during a gunfight in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, police said.
Authorities identified him as Mufti Waqas 30, a Pakistani national.
JeM, which is believed to be allied with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, aims to separate Kashmir from India and merge it into Pakistan.