Authorities imposed a curfew in many parts of the main city of Indian-held Kashmir as violent protests swept through the disputed region following the ‘custodial killing’ of a top separatist commander on Saturday – the day when at least 11 more Kashmiris were killed by Indian security forces.
Police claimed that Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) militant group, was killed in a gunfight with security forces in a village of Pulwama district, some 40 kilometers south of Srinagar. One of Bhat’s comrades was also killed in the gun battle, which erupted late Friday after security forces cordoned off a village following an intelligence tip-off.
“Yes, both of them were gunned down and the operation is still going on,” police chief Shesh Pal Vaid told AFP.
Witnesses and villagers disputed the police claim. They said Sabzar, who succeeded charismatic militant commander Burhan Wani, and two of his associates were arrested Saturday night and then killed in custody.
Wani, the most popular poster boy for Kashmiri separatists, was killed in similar staged gunfight in July last year, triggering months of anti-India protests in the restive region in which nearly 100 people died and thousands sustained injuries.
Another eight separatist militants were killed in Rampur and Uri areas of Baramulla district, according to sources.
Indian army spokesman Colonel Rajesh Kalia confirmed that six militants were killed in gunfight after they had snuck into the Indian side from across the Line of Control (LoC). “Six terrorists were killed after the army foiled an infiltration bid in the Rampur sector,” Kalia told AFP. “Two more militants were killed in a separate gunfight.”
As the news of the Sabzar’s killing spread, thousands of people, including students, took to the streets shouting “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom”. Witnesses said a young man was killed and several others were injured after security forces fired on the protesters.
Police said hundreds of villagers tried to break the cordon by throwing rocks at security forces.
A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the protester was killed after troops opened fire on the villagers. At least three other protesters sustained bullet injuries in the clashes.
Clashes also erupted in other parts of the disputed valley, with police and paramilitary soldiers firing shotgun pellets and tear-gas shells to control the protesters.
Traders shuttered shops and businesses across the valley, including in Srinagar. Officials said clashes were reported in more than four dozen places in the region. Dozens of civilians were injured in the clashes. Subsequently, authorities imposed a curfew in many parts of Srinagar.
Authorities suspended most internet services in the region a day after they lifted a month-long ban on 22 social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. The social media ban came on April 26 after videos depicting the alleged abuse of Kashmiris by Indian forces fueled widespread protests.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley, one of the world’s most heavily militarized areas, where most people favor independence or a merger with Pakistan.
Several armed rebel groups are fighting against Indian rule, with tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians, killed in the nearly three decades-old conflict. HuM is the largest indigenous separatist group fighting against Indian-rule in the Himalayan territory since an armed insurrection broke out in 1989.
Pakistan strongly condemned the ‘martyrdom of 12 Kashmiri youths’ in IOK.
“Pakistan has urged the international community, particularly the United Nations, OIC, P-5 and human rights organisations, to immediately stop the ruthless killing of defenseless Kashmiris in occupied Kashmir,” said PM’s adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz in a statement.
He said India had banned the social, electronic and print media to prevent reports of brutalities against Kashmiris from reaching the outside world. But despite the media blackout, the atrocities being committed in the held region were being reported in the Indian and international media, he added.
Aziz said India had been heightening tension along the Line of Control to hide these crimes against the innocent Kashmiris being perpetrated with impunity. He said in their desperation to hide the reality of the indigenous uprising of young Kashmiris, India was trying to equate it with terrorism.
He said India’s plan to gradually change the demography of IOK to convert the majority into a minority had been brought to the attention of the UN Security Council.
Aziz reaffirmed Pakistan’s unflinching support for Kashmiris in their just struggle for the right to self-determination as promised to them in the relevant UN Security Council’s Resolutions.
President Azad Jammu and Kashmir Sardar Muhammad Masood Khan and Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan also strongly condemned the killings.
In their separate statements, both the leaders said that the Indian army had crossed all limits of atrocities against innocent Kashmiris. They urged the UN and peace loving countries of the world to take notice of Indian brutalities in the occupied valley.