India’s security forces have killed a senior pro-independence leader along with four other fighters in separate gun battles in the Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Riyaz Naikoo, the commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, which is the biggest separatist group fighting New Delhi, was shot dead early on Wednesday when Indian soldiers launched an operation on a tip-off about his hiding in a village in southern Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
“He was trapped in a house and early today a gun battle took place during which he and his associate were killed,” Kashmir’s inspector general of police, Vijay Kumar, told Reuters news agency, adding that two fighters were also killed in another fire exchange nearby.
India has banned Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist outfit along with similar groups. Naikoo had succeeded Burhan Wani who was killed by Indian security forces in 2016.
Naikoo, a former mathematics teacher with a bounty of more than $15,000 on his head, played an important role in helping to give new life to the pro-independence movement after Wani’s death by the unification of its ranks, which had been divided by splinter factions.
Indian authorities blocked mobile internet across the disputed Kashmir region early on Wednesday to preclude from large crowds and gatherings in the streets to mourn Naikoo’s killing.
Kumar said local people, however, defied the warnings and came out on streets and pelted soldiers with stones, which led to clashes between police and protesters.
“Several protesters have received pellet injures and three of them have bullet wounds. They have been hospitalized,” he said.
At least 30 people sustained injuries as protesters clashed with security forces in around a dozen spots across Kashmir, including in the main city of Srinagar, another police official said.
Protesters reportedly set fire to two police vehicles in Pulwama.
Tensions have been especially high in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir over the last year. India and Pakistan both said they carried out airstrikes in enemy territory after a February 2019 bombing by a Pakistan-based militant group killed dozens of Indian troops.
On August 5, 2019, the administration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a surprise executive decree to strip the Indian portion of the Muslim-majority region of its special status. Modi has claimed that the decision was necessary for Kashmir’s economic development and would stop “terrorism.”
India’s decision in Kashmir has sparked protests from the local population, and outrage from Pakistan.
New Delhi accuses Islamabad of supporting pro-independence fighters, an allegation rejected by the Pakistani government. Islamabad, in turn, is critical of India’s heavy military deployment to Kashmir and its crackdown against the region’s Muslim population.