Police in Indian-controlled Kashmir said Tuesday they are investigating allegations by three families that three of their relatives were killed by the military in a staged gunbattle and buried as unidentified militants.
Police are taking “all necessary steps to ascertain facts” in the case, said Amritpal Singh, the police chief in Shopian district, where the Indian army said the gunbattle took place on July 18.
The families said the three young men — cousins age 18, 21 and 25 — went to Shopian to work as laborers. They were last heard from on July 17.
On Sunday, the families said they were shown photographs that circulated on social media of three bodies that, according to the Indian army, were “unidentified terrorists” killed during the Shopian gunbattle.
They recognized the bodies as their missing relatives and filed a report with police.
“They had not even a remote connection with militancy," said Mohammed Yousuf, the father of one the men.
He said his son spoke to his wife on July 17 and from the next day the cellphones of all three cousins were switched off.
He called for “a probe, verification of their call records and background checks” to prove their innocence.
A police statement on July 18 said soldiers killed three unidentified militants during a counterinsurgency operation in Shopian and buried their bodies in a remote graveyard.
An Indian army spokesman, Col. Rajesh Kalia, said in a statement late Monday that “the three terrorists killed during the operation have not been identified and the bodies were buried based on established protocols.” He said the army had "noted social media inputs linked to the operation at Shopian” and was investigating the matter.
Lal Din Khatana, a resident of Amshipora village in Shopian where soldiers said the three men were killed, told reporters that only a few shots were fired on July 18, followed by a loud explosion.
He said the soldiers later asked villagers to identify the men but they couldn’t recognize them. “Their faces were burnt. Two were unrecognizable. One face was in good shape but they couldn’t recognize him either.”
Khatana and several other villagers said the shots seemed more like one-sided firing than an exchange of gunfire.
The incident could further ratchet up anti-India anger in the disputed region, where Indian forces have repeatedly been accused of targeting civilians.
In 2010, a massive uprising erupted in Kashmir after a police investigation found Indian soldiers had killed three civilians in a staged gunbattle and then said the victims were militants in order to claim a reward. The army responded by suspending two officers.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan. Rebel groups have fought since 1989 in Indian-held Kashmir to demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
Emergency laws give Indian forces in Kashmir sweeping powers to search homes and make arrests without warrants and to shoot suspects on sight without fear of prosecution.