In­dian forces kill mil­i­tant leader in Kash­mir re­gion, prompt­ing protests

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ISHFAQ NASEEM AND AN­NIE GOWEN an­nie.gowen@wash­post.com Gowen re­ported from New Delhi.

srinagar, in­dia — A pop­u­lar mil­i­tant com­man­der and one other gun­man were killed Satur­day in a stand­off with se­cu­rity forces in In­dian-ad­min­is­tered Kash­mir, spark­ing wide­spread protests across the valley that left at least one civil­ian dead.

Po­lice said Sabzar Ah­mad Bhat, the op­er­a­tional com­man­der of the ter­ror­ist group Hizbul Mu­jahideen, was killed Satur­day morn­ing in a siege that had be­gun Fri­day night when se­cu­rity forces were fired upon near the town of Tral in south Kash­mir.

Af­ter ex­chang­ing gun­fire with the se­cu­rity forces, the mil­i­tants took refuge in nearby houses, po­lice said, prompt­ing a search op­er­a­tion. Bhat and a young mil­i­tant were killed dur­ing an­other ex­change of fire.

Af­ter the shoot­ing, lo­cals thronged to the area and be­gan pelt­ing se­cu­rity forces with stones, un­rest that even­tu­ally lead to protests through­out the valley.

Bhat was a child­hood friend of Burhan Wani, the so­cial me­di­asavvy mil­i­tant com­man­der whose death July 8 set off weeks of strikes and protests in Kash­mir, even­tu­ally claim­ing 78 lives.

Jammu and Kash­mir Po­lice Chief Shesh Paul Vaid said that po­lice have been search­ing for Bhat for over a year and that he was in­stru­men­tal in draw­ing many youth into mil­i­tant ranks.

Of­fi­cials have down­played Bhat’s death — say­ing he was not as pop­u­lar a folk hero as Wani — but none­the­less are con­cerned that this sum­mer may see a re­peat of last year’s vi­o­lence. A month­long ban on so­cial-me­dia sites and mo­bile In­ter­net use put in place to stop the spread of in­cen­di­ary videos on WhatsApp and Face­book was lifted for a mat­ter of hours be­fore Bhat’s death, then put in place again.

Af­ter the re­gion calmed dur­ing the snowy Hi­malayan win­ter, ten­sions rose again in April dur­ing a special elec­tion for a par­lia­men­tary seat and sev­eral days of protests by col­lege stu­dents over what they see as In­dian mil­i­tary ex­cesses. More than 20 peo­ple have been killed so far this year.

In­dian of­fi­cials have said that the num­ber of mil­i­tants in the valley has been ris­ing in re­cent months, although the to­tal num­ber of about 200 is nowhere near the lev­els of the vi­o­lent 1990s, when a deadly in­sur­gency in the re­gion long claimed by both In­dia and Pak­istan re­sulted in thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties.

The Hur­riyat, the con­fer­ence of sep­a­ratist or­ga­ni­za­tions, has called for a two-day strike be­gin­ning Mon­day and asked peo­ple to march to­ward Tral on Tues­day to pay trib­ute to the dead leader and oth­ers killed Satur­day. Army spokesman Ra­jesh Kalia said ear­lier that six mil­i­tants were also killed Satur­day along the de facto bor­der with Pak­istan, the Line of Con­trol.

DAR YASIN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Kash­miri vil­lagers shout Satur­day as they dis­play the body of rebel leader Sabzar Ahmed Bhat in Tral, a town in In­dian-ad­min­is­tered Kash­mir. Bhat and a fel­low mil­i­tant were killed by po­lice ear­lier in the day.

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