India declares major victory after killing top Kashmiri rebel commander

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A top rebel commander and his aide were killed by Indian forces in Kashmir on Wednesday, sparking protests in a region already riddled by violence.

Riyaz Naikoo, 35, was the chief of operations of the region's largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which has spearheaded an armed rebellion against Indian rule.

Naikoo had been on the run for nearly eight years, but Indian police and army soldiers received a tip that he and other rebels were hiding out in the Awantipora area in southern Kashmir late Tuesday and began descending on the region.

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Armored vehicles swept through the area and military officials used earth movers to dig up several patches of land, including a school playground, looking for possible underground hideouts, residents said, according to reports by the Associated Press.

Troops blasted at least two civilian homes with explosives, a common tactic employed by Indian troops in Kashmir.

Government forces then began house-to-house searches in the area on Wednesday that resulted in a shootout between Indian and rebel forces, police said. In the ensuing firefight, two militants were killed, a police official said on condition of anonymity, keeping with government policy. He identified one of the slain rebels as Naikoo. The officer said Naikoo was the most wanted militant in Kashmir, and troops had conducted dozens of operations to get him.

The BBC reported that eight security personnel were also killed in two separate attacks.

In accordance with new government policy, authorities did not hand over the bodies of the two slain rebels to their families and instead, they were buried in a remote mountainous graveyard about 62 miles away from their slaying, which has also happened to be Naikoo's native village.

India and Pakistan have long fought over Kashmir with both sides claiming the territory as their own and the fighting in the mountainous region between the two nations has led to nearly 70,000 civilian and military casualties on both sides.

Rebel groups have long fought to unite the Kashmiri territory either as an independent nation or under Pakistani rule. India has accused Pakistan of providing support to the rebels to fight against Indian forces.

Naikoo, a famed mathematician, rose to power succeeding Burhan Wani, who was killed by security forces in 2016. Naikoo was successful in uniting the rebels, who were previously split into factions.

Anti-India protests ensued in the streets of Kashmir during the military excursion against Naikoo, and officials cut mobile and internet service in an effort to stop protestors from gathering.

Government forces fired bullets, shotgun pellets and teargas at a large anti-India protest that hit the streets and threw stones at the troops shortly after the news of the rebel leader's killing spread. At least a dozen civilians were injured in the clashes, locals and medics said. One among the injured was critical with a gunfire injury.

India has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations across Kashmir in recent months during a coronavirus lockdown. Militants have also continued their attacks on government forces and alleged informants. More than two dozen militants and about a dozen Indian troops were killed in April, the most in any month since August 2019, when India revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and imposed direct federal rule.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.