SRINAGAR, India – A police officer in Indian-controlled Kashmir's main city was beaten to death after he fired at a group of people who suspected him of spying on worshippers during the holiest night of the year for Muslims, police and witnesses said.
The lynching occurred outside Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, late Thursday during the celebrations of Laylat al Qadr, or "Night of Power," which commemorates the night the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Men asked the officer, who was wearing civilian clothes, to identify himself while he was taking pictures on his cellphone. According to witnesses, the officer panicked, drew out his pistol and fired, injuring three civilians.
Witnesses said more people assembled and snatched his weapon while beating him to death. His companion, also in civilian clothes, managed to flee, witnesses said.
The incident followed clashes between residents and government forces in the area.
Police chief S.P. Vaid said the officer was on duty at the mosque and some people "among the worshippers lynched and martyred him." He said two alleged attackers were arrested and a third suspect has been identified.
Kashmir's top elected official, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, told reporters at the officer's wreath laying ceremony that the police were exercising "maximum restraint as they were dealing with their own people."
"If they run out of patience, it will be a very difficult situation," she said.
Since last year, police have increasingly come under attack from both anti-India protesters and rebels fighting against Indian rule. Many policemen have been killed and their homes ransacked by suspected militants in a warning to local police officials to stop participating in counterinsurgency operations.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top separatist leader and Kashmir's chief cleric who was present in the main mosque at the time of the officer's lynching, condemned the incident in a tweet on Friday as a "brutal act."
"Mob violence & public lynching is outside the parameters of our values & religion... We cannot allow state brutality to snatch our humanity & values," he tweeted.
Meanwhile, authorities Friday imposed stringent curfew in old parts of Srinagar and did not allow Friday prayers at the Jamia Masjid.
The last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan is observed as "Al-Quds Day" and "Kashmir Day" in the region in solidarity with Kashmiris and Palestinians.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or merger with neighboring Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting and the ensuing Indian crackdown. Anti-India sentiment runs deep among the region's mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels' cause against Indian rule.
India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
Rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian forces in recent years and public opposition to Indian rule is now principally expressed through street protests.