One civilian was killed and dozens of others injured Saturday after massive anti-India protests and clashes erupted in Indian-controlled Kashmir following the killing of a prominent rebel commander and his associate in a gunbattle with government forces in the disputed region.
Rebel leader Sabzar Ahmed Bhat and a fellow militant were killed after troops cordoned off the southern Tral area overnight following a tip that rebels were hiding there, police said.
The gunbattle ended later Saturday and soldiers recovered the bodies of two militants. However, they were searching the area for at least one more body, police said.
As the violence raged, hundreds of angry residents chanting anti-India slogans marched in an attempt to help the trapped rebels escape.
Clashes between rock-throwing protesters and government forces erupted in different places in the area, with police and paramilitary soldiers firing shotgun pellets and tear gas to stop the protests.
Witnesses said a young man was killed and several other people were injured after government forces fired on the protesters near the site of the gunbattle. Police chief S.P. Vaid said the man was killed by crossfire.
As the news of the rebel leader\’s killing spread in the region, thousands of people, including students, took to the streets shouting "Go India, go back" and "We want freedom."
Traders shuttered shops and businesses across the Kashmir Valley, including in the region\’s main city of Srinagar. Officials said clashes were reported in more than four dozen places in the region.
Dozens of civilians were reported injured in the clashes.
Authorities suspended most internet services in the region a day after they lifted a monthlong ban on 22 social networking sites, including Facebook and Twitter. The social media ban on April 26 came after videos depicting the alleged abuse of Kashmiris by Indian forces fueled widespread protests.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep among the region\’s mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels\’ cause against Indian rule despite a decades-long military crackdown to fight the armed rebellion.
Last year, similar massive protests followed by clashes roiled Kashmir following the killing of charismatic rebel leader Burhan Wani. His death led to months of protests and a security lockdown during which at least 90 people were killed and thousands injured. Hundreds were blinded or maimed by the firing of government forces.
Earlier Saturday, Indian soldiers killed six suspected rebels along the highly militarized de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the army said.
The gunbattle erupted after a group of heavily armed militants crossed from the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir into the Indian-held portion in western Rampur sector, said army spokesman Col. Rajesh Kalia.
On Friday, the army said soldiers killed two suspected militants in the same area after they crossed into the Indian-administered part of Kashmir from the Pakistani-held part.
There was no independent confirmation of the latest incidents.
India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over their rival claims to the territory.
Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir\’s independence or merger with neighboring Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting and the ensuing Indian crackdown. India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
Rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian forces in recent years. However, public opposition to Indian rule remains deep and is now principally expressed through street protests marked by youths hurling stones at government forces.