Government forces killed a top rebel commander and his aide in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Wednesday and shut down cellphone and mobile internet services during subsequent anti-India protests, officials and residents said.
The dead commander, Riyaz Naikoo, was the chief of operations of the disputed region's largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, which has spearheaded an armed rebellion against Indian rule.
Naikoo was the group's top commander for almost eight years and was responsible for recruiting dozens of Kashmiris to fight against India, according to officials. He shot into prominence after a 2016 public uprising following the killing of the group’s charismatic leader, Burhan Wani.
Police and army soldiers launched an operation in the Awantipora area in southern Kashmir late Tuesday based on a tip that some militant commanders were sheltering there. They used earth movers to dig up several patches of land, including a school playground, looking for possible underground hideouts, residents said.
On Wednesday, as the government forces began house-to-house searches in the area, they came under heavy gunfire from rebels, police said. In the ensuing firefight, two militants were killed, a police official said on condition of anonymity, keeping with government policy. He identified one of the slain rebels as Naikoo.
Before joining the group, Naikoo was a mathematics teacher.
Some anti-India protests and clashes between protesters and government forces were also reported in the area where the gunfight occurred.
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Authorities first blocked mobile internet service, a common Indian tactic in the region when such fighting erupts. As the fighting continued and word spread that Naikoo was trapped, they also stopped mobile phone service.
Authorities say it is necessary to halt cellphone and internet service to prevent anti-India protesters from assembling.
In 2019, the government imposed a monthslong total communication blackout during an unprecedented military crackdown in the strife-torn region.
India has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations across Kashmir in recent months during a coronavirus lockdown. Militants have also continued their attacks on government forces and alleged informants. More than two dozen militants and about a dozen Indian troops were killed in April, the most in any month since August 2019, when India revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status and statehood and imposed direct federal rule.
There also has been almost daily fighting over the last several months along the rugged and mountainous frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
India and Pakistan both claim the territory in its entirety. Most Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the anti-India rebels. Pakistan denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the militants and to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.