Indian army soldiers take cover near the site of a gun battle between militants and government forces in Sirnoo Pulwama south of Srinagar on December 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/STR
Indian army soldiers take cover near the site of a gun battle between militants and government forces in Sirnoo Pulwama south of Srinagar on December 15, 2018. Photo: AFP/STR

The Kashmir Valley, the heart of India’s northern-most state, erupted after 11 people were killed – including seven unarmed civilians – when the army opened fire on protesters after an encounter with armed militants on Saturday.

Three local militants and an Indian Army soldier were killed in a gunfight in Kharpora Sirnoo village of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. More than 50 civilians were also injured, after forces opened fire on protesters in the area, some 30 kilometers from the summer capital of Srinagar.

The death toll is expected to rise as the condition of 10 protestors is described as critical. As news of clash spread, spontaneous protests broke out in various parts of the valley, prompting the Indian government to cut internet services and impose a curfew in some areas.

The Hurriyat, an umbrella of the separatist leadership, has called for a  three-day shutdown and protests outside the main Army garrison in the state.

Politicians from the regional political parties, attacked Governor SP Malik for his “failures.” The state of Jammu & Kashmir is currently under the governor’s rule after the local government was suspended when the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) alliance with the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) ended more than six months ago.The governor was appointed by the federal government in New Delhi. Malik is a career politician who switched from the Congress to the BJP.

According to local witnesses, the encounter took place in the early hours of Saturday in an orchard in Sirnoo, where the militants had “dug in” at  a hideout.  As news spread that some local militants were trapped, scores of people rushed to the area to “rescue” the besieged militants and security forces initially used teargas to disperse the protesters.

Official sources said the encounter ended in the death of all three militants, who were affiliated with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, while a soldier was also killed. One of the militants was identified as Zahoor Ahmad Thokar of Sirnoo, a former Indian army soldier who deserted his unit to join the militants.

According to witnesses, “men in uniform” allegedly opened indiscriminate fire on the protesting civilians as army personnel were removing the bodies of the militants. Witnesses said more than 50 civilians were wounded and rushed to hospitals. Six of them were reported to be dead on arrival while some of the wounded were rushed to Srinagar for treatment.

It was reported that hospitals were running out of blood because of the high number of casualties and made an appeal for donations.

Malaysian woman bereaved

Among those killed was Abid Hussain Lone, an MBA from a university in Indonesia. Mourners said he was married to an Indonesian woman and the couple had a three-months-old baby. Abid, who was widely respected as an accomplished man in his village, had returned home last year along with his wife.

A resident of Kareemabad, Pulwama, Abid, suffered multiple bullet wounds, his neighbors said.

District Magistrate Pulwama GM Dar said: “What has actually happened I don’t know as I wasn’t on the spot at the time. I have yet to get details from police. All I know as of now is that at least seven civilians were killed and around 10 are wounded. It’s a matter of investigation and seeking reports from concerned SSP,” Dar told Asia Times.

An army spokesman in Srinagar said in a statement that three militants and a soldier were killed in the gunfight. There was no mention of civilian killings in the official statement. Later in the evening, police issued a statement saying: “While the operation was going on, a crowd who came dangerously close from different parts to the encounter site got injured.”

“The injured were evacuated to hospital where unfortunately seven persons succumbed to their injuries. Others who were admitted to the hospital are stated to be stable,” police said.

“The loss of civilians is deeply grieved. Police once again appeal to  citizens to stay away from the encounter site as it is a prohibited zone which involves significant danger to life because of the nature of the encounter.”

Call for Strike

The Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) has called for a three-day shutdown in response to the killings. “From today for three days mourning and a complete protest strike will be observed,” Kashmir’s head priest and senior separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said on Twitter.

Mirwaiz has asked people to stage protests outside the Indian Army’s main garrison in Srinagar, the Badami Bagh cantonment. “Bullets and pellets rain! As Govt of India has decided to kill Kashmiri’s through its #ArmedForces who control us, JRL and people will march towards Badami Bagh Army cantonment on Monday, December 17, to ask the Government Of India to kill all of us at one time rather than killing us daily,” he tweeted.

Former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti condemned the civilian killings, putting blame on State Governor, Malik.  In a series of tweets, Omar Abdullah hit out at the governor’s administration, saying it has failed to focus on the security of the people.

“The administration of Governor Malik has one task and one task only – to focus on the security of the people of J&K & restore peace to a troubled valley. Sadly it appears that’s the only thing the administration is not doing. Publicity campaigns & full page ads don’t bring peace,” Abdullah tweeted.

PDP president Mehbooba Mufti, while condemning the killings, said that no probe could bring back the dead civilians. She also criticized the governor’s administration for “failing to secure civilian lives.”

This year has been one of the bloodiest years in a decade in Kashmir. Over 420 people have already been killed due to violence since January. More than half of those killed are militants, data from security agencies shows. In 2016, there was a steady hike in militancy-related incidents. Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing that year caused more bloodshed, taking the total number of deaths to 247.

Subsequently, in mid 2017, the Indian Army launched the Operation All Out to neutralize 258 militants who were shortlisted by security agencies. At least 384 people were killed.

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