SRINAGAR, India – A Kashmiri scholar-turned rebel leader and his colleague were killed Thursday in a gunbattle with Indian troops, police and residents said, sparking violent anti-India protests by residents in the disputed region.
The incident could spark more unrest in a region that in recent years has witnessed renewed rebel attacks and public resistance against Indian rule.
Indian troops laid siege to a village in northwestern Handwara area early Thursday on a tip that militants were hiding there, police said. As counterinsurgency police and soldiers launched a search operation, a gunfight erupted in which two rebels were killed.
Authorities shut down internet service on mobile phones and ordered the closure of schools in several places in the region fearing student protests.
Anti-India protests and clashes erupted as the fighting raged, with hundreds of residents trying to march to the site in solidarity with the militants. Government forces fired warning shots, shotgun pellets and tear gas at the stone-throwing protesters, injuring at least four people.
The gunbattle ended later Thursday morning and soldiers immediately recovered the bodies of the two militants, but authorities withheld their identities for several hours, a common practice to give police and soldiers time to deploy at key positions to counter anti-India protests and clashes.
Muneer Khan, a senior police officer, said one of the slain was identified by his parents as top rebel leader Manan Wani, the newspaper Greater Kashmir reported.
Wani was pursuing a doctorate in geology at an Indian university when he abandoned his research in January to join the Hizbul Mujahedeen, Kashmir's largest rebel group. He soon became a household name and attained the status of a thinker among the rebels who penned articles, arguing such things as why he preferred guns over pens and the nature of the fight in one of the world's most heavily militarized regions.
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim it in its entirety.
Most Kashmiris support rebel demands that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. In recent years, mainly young Kashmiris have displayed open solidarity with the rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations.
Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.