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 led to protests throughout the valley.
Bhat was a childhood friend of Burhan Wani, the social media-savvy 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 month-long 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.
Gowen reported from New Delhi.