Security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir were on high alert Monday following a shutdown called by separatists to protest the killings of two civilians over the weekend, severely disrupting life in the disputed Himalayan region, police said.
Four suspected armed separatists, two Indian soldiers and a civilian – identified as Ashiq Ahmad Reshi, 38 – were killed during the 10-hour firefight, police said, adding that three more soldiers were seriously wounded in the encounter.
Reshi was killed by the alleged militants who had taken him hostage inside his house, a top police official told BenarNews.
“The militants shot him dead while he was attempting to come out of his house where he was being held hostage. Desperate attempts were made to rescue him but he was killed,” Director General of Police (DGP) S.P. Vaid said.
Seven suspected operatives of Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), Kashmir’s largest separatist faction, had forcibly taken shelter in Reshi’s house on Sunday, Vaid said.
“The army tried to avoid confrontation to prevent collateral damage, but were forced to retaliate when the militants opened fire. After an exchange of fire that lasted over 10 hours, two militants each from LeT and HM, and two army soldiers were killed, besides Reshi,” Vaid said.
The slain suspected militants were identified as Farooq Ahmad Bhat, Mohammad Younis Lone, Mudasir Ahmad Tantary and Wakeel Ahmad Thoker – all residents of south Kashmir. The fallen soldiers were identified as Lance Naik Bhandoria Gopal Singh and Sepoy Rughbeer Singh.
The Indian Army said personnel made every effort to rescue Reshi.
“Despite our best efforts we were unable to bring the civilian out of his house where the militants were holed up and had taken him hostage. Even the village elders urged him to come out of the house using a loudspeaker, but he didn’t [come out],” Commanding Officer Brig. R. Chakarwarty told reporters.
“But unfortunately he was killed in militant firing. It appears to be the first case of militants taking a civilian hostage.”
Residents, however, accused Indian forces of being responsible for the civilian’s death.
“They [government forces] used Reshi as a human shield. The forces dragged him along when they entered his house where militants had taken shelter,” Abdul Rashid told BenarNews, adding that the government must launch an investigation to bring the guilty to justice.
Second civilian death
Another civilian – Mushtaq Ahmad Itoo, 22 – was killed when security forces opened fire at anti-India protesters who had taken to the streets of Anantnag district to condemn Reshi’s killing, reviving memories of a recent cycle of violence that followed the slaying of a separatist leader in July.
More than 100 people died and more than 10,000 were injured in near daily clashes between Indian security forces and pro-freedom protesters that lasted from July till December.
At least 70,000 people – a majority of them civilians – have been killed since a separatist insurgency broke out in the late 1980s in Kashmir, a region claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan.
“Protesters were raising anti-India slogans and were heading toward the encounter site in Kulgam district when security forces started firing live ammunition indiscriminately to break up the protest,” Anantnag resident Niyaz Ahmad told BenarNews.
Police said they were trying to determine how Itoo was killed.
“We are investigating,” DGP Vaid said, adding that authorities had beefed up security across the region to prevent a repeat of last year’s violence.
“The situation is under control for now. I hope complete normalcy will prevail in the region,” he added.
However, sporadic clashes erupted between protesters and Indian security personnel in Anantnag on Monday, but no casualties were reported.