SRINAGAR, India (AP) — 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.
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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 possible 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 but 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, writing articles about 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.
Separatist leaders who challenge India’s sovereignty over Kashmir called for a general strike on Friday in honor of Wani.
“Deeply pained that we lost a budding intellectual and writer like him” who fought “for the cause of self-determination,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a top Kashmiri leader, said in a tweet.
Indian security officials called Wani’s killing a major achievement in fighting militancy.
Later Thursday, tens of thousands of people took part in Wani’s funeral while chanting anti-India and pro-militant slogans such as “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom.”
In one of his articles, Wani likened military occupation to a disease. “Occupation is like a cancer. … We as a nation and community have to evolve and update ourselves of the new military, mental and diplomatic tactics of India as a colonial state.”
He argued for the use of arms in fighting India, calling it self-defense.
“Violence is not that we have picked up guns to fight occupation but violence is the presence of … Indian armed men in Kashmir … occupation in itself is the biggest violence. Therefore, apologists of occupation should learn and understand the difference between ‘violence’ and ‘self-defense,'” Wani wrote.
Also on Thursday, gunmen shot and killed a prominent separatist activist in the southern Shopian area. Separatists condemned the killing and urged an independent probe, while police blamed militants for it.
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.
Follow Aijaz Hussain at twitter.com/hussain_aijaz