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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - SRINAGAR: Indian government forces on Wednesday killed the leader of the largest Kashmiri militant group fighting for independence from New Delhi, authorities said.
Riyaz Naikoo, 35, the head of Hizbul Mujahideen in Indian-administered Kashmir, died when soldiers blew up two houses in Beighpora in the valley’s south, Kashmir police chief Vijay Kumar told local news agency Global News Service.
His death was confirmed by Indian national government ministers in New Delhi.
Former Kashmir police chief Shesh Paul Vaid said Naikoo’s killing was a “big success” for Indian forces.
Soldiers and counterinsurgency police were conducting house-to-house searches late Tuesday and Wednesday when they zeroed in on two homes where the top rebel leader was thought to be hiding, triggering an exchange of fire early Wednesday.
Fearing protests and an outbreak of violence as news spread that Naikoo was trapped, authorities on Wednesday cut mobile Internet and messaging services in Kashmir.
All private mobile networks except the state-run cell operator were suspended.
Hundreds of locals clashed with police and threw stones after they were stopped from marching toward his home village.
Fifteen people were injured in the clashes that continued well into the late evening. One of the protesters, who sustained a bullet wound, was taken to hospital, a police officer told AFP.
A local curfew was imposed in the area.
Two other suspected militants were also killed in a separate shootout on Wednesday not far from Naikoo’s home, army spokesman Col. Rajesh Kalia said in a brief statement.
Naikoo was the longest-surviving commander in the Muslim-majority Kashmir, where a rebellion against Indian rule has raged since 1989 with tens of thousands of lives, mostly civilians, lost in the conflict.
Born into a family of farmers, college graduate Naikoo was known locally as a mathematics tutor who taught students, many of them for free, at his village.
He joined the rebels in 2012 and took over the reins of Hizbul Mujahideen after the killing of its charismatic rebel leader Burhan Wani in 2016 sparked fierce protests that left more than 100 dead.
Naikoo’s death came amid an intensification of counterinsurgency efforts by Indian government forces against the rebels in recent months. India has more than 500,000 troops in the region.
Tensions have been high since August after New Delhi scrapped the region’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a total security and communication blackout.
Fixed lines, mobiles and Internet services were cut before being gradually restored, although 4G mobile data has not been reinstated.
At least 57 militants have been killed in Kashmir this year, according to an AFP tally.
Five soldiers, including an Indian army colonel, and four militants were killed over the weekend in the valley.
Three paramilitary troopers were killed by militants in an ambush on Monday that also claimed the life of a 14-year-old local boy.
Near-daily cross-border firing between India and Pakistan — which contests Kashmir — has occurred regularly despite the pandemic and the ongoing Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
New Delhi regularly accuses arch-rival Pakistan of arming and sending rebels across the heavily militarised border. Islamabad denies the claims.
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