SOPORE, India – Four assassination-style killings since last week have shaken this town in Kashmir just as the Himalayan region claimed by both India and Pakistan seemed to be slowly emerging from decades of violence.
There's strong suspicion in the Sopore area, where most of its 500,000 residents want independence or union with Pakistan, that India is behind the killings. The four slain men apparently shared a common sentiment: Two had fought Indian rule militarily while the other two had politically opposed India's control.
Militant and separatist groups say it's no coincidence that the attacks came after Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar's comments last month that "you have to neutralize terrorists through terrorists only."
Rattled by the killings, Sopore is a ghost town. Its normally bustling streets lie deserted, and its residents, when they do go out, making little eye contact with each other. Some fear that Indian security forces have reactivated secret forces such as the "Ikhwanis" they once used to eliminate dissidents during the bloody 1990s.
The violence comes after a period of relative calm. Guerrilla attacks have declined and tourism has once again becoming a serious business. But the recent attacks are a crushing reminder that the region where a bloody separatist campaign and brutal Indian military crackdown that has killed 68,000 people since 1989 remains volatile.
Activists called for a protest rally in the town Friday, but Indian authorities imposed a curfew in many parts of Kashmir, including old quarters of the main city Srinagar, to try to prevent that from occurring. Thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers fanned out across the region where street protests have become the main tool to express anger against Indian rule.
Police also detained dozens of separatist leaders and activists to stop them from leading the protest.
On-and-off talks between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory have made virtually no progress in years amid deep mutual distrust. India accuses Pakistan of training and financing militants and pushing them into the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. Islamabad denies the charge, saying it only gives moral and diplomatic support to the rebels.
The killings began last week when gunmen shot and killed a well-known separatist activist Sheikh Altafur Rehman, who was also a senior pharmacist at a hospital in Sopore.
"He was released from police custody only two days earlier before he was brutally murdered by Indian agents," said his 74-year-old father Sheikh Mohammed Yousuf, sitting in his home, tears trickling down his cheeks.
"What will police probe? We know who's behind these killings. We know the planners," Yousuf said. "Anyone can be used for pulling the trigger."
Three days later, a local trade union leader and separatist sympathizer Khurshid Ahmed Bhat was killed. Then on two successive days, two former rebels were slain. Mehrajuddin Dar, who had fought with the pro-independence Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front, was outside his poultry shop Sunday in Sopore when he was shot in the head from behind.
The next day, Aijaz Ahmed Reshi, who had been imprisoned at least several times, also was shot in the head in his village near Sopore. Two men came from behind and pumped three bullets into his head. The gunmen fired shots in the air as local villagers, along with a neighbor's dog, which caught ahold of one of assailants' legs.
"In a commando style, he shot the dog in the head," said a local resident, Ahmed Bhat, who only gave his last two names fearing reprisals.
Reshi was part of the Harkat-ul Mujahideen militant group in 2002, according to his family and neighbors. He was arrested and incarcerated for nearly three years in 2007. Police locked him up again for three months in 2012.
"He was now a contractor, leading somewhat a normal life," said his younger brother Muddasir Ahmed. "But he would always say: 'My life is nothing, soldiers will kill me any day.'"
Authorities say their initial investigations indicated that two prominent local rebels belonging to Kashmir's largest militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, were involved in the killings.
"We've identified the militants and it's only a matter of time before we get them," said K. Rajendra, director-general of police. "It's an internal rivalry and an apparent split within their ranks leading to these killings." The police have offered a reward of about $31,000 for the capture of the two suspects.
The Hizbul Mujahideen has denounced the killings and blamed India — allegations that Rajendra called "baseless."
Noor Mohammed Baba, a political science professor at Kashmir University, said while it was difficult to draw any clear conclusions from the targeted killings, "there are reasons to suspect as common people, separatists and even some pro-India politicians have drawn conclusions from the defense minister's recent statement."
"India-Pakistan peace initiative is officially missing. People are fast losing hope," he said. "It is breeding a new kind of militancy which is professional and more lethal."