Police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Wednesday detained relatives of two civilians killed in a controversial gunfight after the families staged a protest in Srinagar demanding that local police return the bodies for traditional burial.
The two civilians were among four people killed in a shootout with government security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir earlier this week, and their families have accused those troops of lying about how the raid unfolded.
Police say the civilians died in the crossfire between government troops and rebels. But witnesses and families of the civilians say Indian troops used those civilians as human shields during the standoff.
On Tuesday, police in the disputed region’s main city said that four people were killed in the raid.
The fight, according to police, left dead a foreign "terrorist," Hyder — whose alias, according to police, is Bilal Bhai — along with his "associate," Aamir Ahmad, and "two sympathizers," Mudasir Gul and Altaf Ahmad Bhat.
Vijay Kumar, police inspector general for the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, told reporters that police had information about the presence of militants in the area.
"The joint teams of police, central reserve police force and army set up a cordon and searched," he said, adding that when government forces knocked on the door of a room where the militants were hiding, militants shot at them, and in "self-defense, troops opened fire."
The gunfight took place inside a three-story shopping center owned by Bhat, who sold cement and hardware on the ground floor. Gul rented the first floor, where he operated a construction business and a call center where he employed Ahmad as a helper.
'Gunfight was staged'
"I believe the gunfight was staged," eyewitness Mohammad Shafi told VOA. "Police have constantly changed their statements."
Shafi disputed the police claim of killing four people, including a foreign militant.
"Following the gunfight, I saw only three bodies being taken out from the building before leaving the spot,” he said. “I wonder, who was the fourth one?"
Another eyewitness, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said he knew the three people killed, especially Bhat, who was a "classmate and neighbor." He believes all three were innocent civilians.
The eyewitness told VOA that police first rounded up everyone on the premises and led them to a nearby showroom.
"Then a few policemen asked [Bhat] and [Gul] to accompany them inside Bhat's building, and they obeyed," he said.
Police went inside and came back out multiple times before taking Gul's worker Ahmad inside as well.
Soon after, bystanders heard gunshots.
A picture of Bhat's bloodied body started circulating on local Facebook pages. Later, police tweeted that militants had been killed in the encounter.
Journalist Saima Bhat, Bhat's niece, accused police of using her uncle as a human shield.
"You killed my innocent uncle Mohammad Altaf Bhat in cold-blooded murder in Hyderpora [neighborhood], you used him as human shield and now saying he was ‘OGW.’ Return us his body," she tweeted, using an acronym for "over ground workers," a regional colloquialism for people who provide logistical support to militants or terrorists.
Bhat's brother Abdul Majeed told VOA the authorities have falsely accused his brother of supporting militancy.
"I challenge the inspector general of police to prove that my brother was an OGW," Majeed said with tears in his eyes before criticizing police for risking the lives of ordinary citizens by including them in search operations.
"If [police and army] had information about the presence of militants, they should conduct their own searches without risking innocent lives," he said.
According to Majeed, Ahmad was a poor worker who did odd jobs for Gul.
"The first time government forces entered inside the building, they frisked [Ahmad] and asked him to wait downstairs,” Majeed said. “Had he been a militant, they would have nabbed him right then."
'At least return his body'
Gul, the third person killed in the fight, was a physician who had switched to the construction business. Police labelled him a "white-collar terrorist," but his family and friends called his killing "cold-blooded murder."
Gul's father, Ghulam Mohammad Rather, is calling for a judicial probe.
"My son had nothing to do with any militant organization," he said. "At least return his body so we can perform his last rites."
One of Gul's friends alleged that the police were "cooking up something" because they kept changing their statement.
Inspector Kumar says police approached the families of Gul and Bhat about participating in the burial.
"Since we have apprehensions of law-and-order problems, we cannot hand over bodies to families,” he said. “We took bodies to Handwara — some 90 kilometers from Srinagar — where burial took place."
In a statement, police said that two pistols were recovered from the site of the encounter, and that the call center in Bhat's building had been used for terrorist activities.
Police initially said both Bhat and Gul were injured and eventually killed by "terrorists firing," but later said that both men may have been caught in the crossfire between the alleged militants and police.
"I'm saying [Bhat] was killed in cross-firing,” Kumar said. “I'm not saying if he was killed by militants or if we fired at him. During the encounter, whose bullet hit him is a matter of investigation. If he was hit by a pistol bullet, then terrorists have killed him; if hit by AK rifle, then we can say he was hit by our bullet."
Demand for independent inquiry
The incident has sparked outrage across the valley, and various political parties have condemned it.
The former chief minister of Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, accused the Indian government of atrocities.
"Using innocent civilians as human shields, getting them killed in cross firing & then conveniently labelling them as OGWs is part of [the government of India's] rulebook now,” Mufti tweeted. “Imperative that a credible judicial enquiry is done to bring out the truth & put an end to this rampant culture of impunity."