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SRINAGAR, India – Government forces killed three suspected Kashmiri rebels in fighting in the disputed region Thursday and fatally shot a rock-throwing protester during an ensuing rally demanding an end to Indian rule, officials said.
The militants were killed following a nightlong exchange of gunfire after police and soldiers cordoned off southern Kakpora village, said army spokesman Col. Rajesh Kalia. An Indian army officer was wounded.
Residents said troops used explosives to target the house the militants were firing from and set it on fire. Police recovered the charred bodies of the three militants.
Hundreds of residents defied the security lockdown around the village and clashed with government forces in an attempt to help the trapped militants escape.
As news of the killings spread, thousands of people assembled in Kakpora for funeral prayers for the slain militants. Thousands more took to the streets in neighboring Awantipora town, where protesters blocked a key highway connecting the Kashmir Valley with India while chanting "Go India, go back" and "We want freedom."
Government forces fired bullets, shotgun pellets and tear gas at rock-throwing protesters, killing a man and injuring about 65 others, according to witnesses and a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.
The officer said the slain man was a regular anti-India protester and "habitual stone-thrower" and had many cases registered against him with police. Local residents said the man was targeted by the government forces.
On Wednesday, Indian troops killed two Kashmiri rebels in a gunbattle in northern Sopore area.
In recent years, Kashmiris, mainly youths, have displayed open solidarity with anti-India rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations against the militants. The anti-India protests and clashes have persisted despite the Indian army chief warning recently that "tough action" would be taken against stone throwers during counterinsurgency operations.
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.