WASHINGTON - The U.S. State Department has declared Syed Salahuddin, the Pakistan-based chief of Hizbul Mujahideen, as a "global terrorist," and imposed new sanctions aimed at suppressing his organization, one of the major militant groups fighting against Indian rule in Kashmir.
The State Department said the militant leader poses "a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals, or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States."
The U.S. acted just hours before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had his first face-to-face meeting with President Donald Trump at the Oval Office in late June.
Here's what is known about Salahuddin and his militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen.
A native of Indian-administered Kashmir, Syed Muhammad Yusuf Shah, known as Syed Salahuddin, is the current chief of Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) and operates from Pakistan.
Salahuddin, 71, joined the decades-long militancy in Kashmir after losing a legislative assembly election in 1987. In 1989, he moved to the Pakistani side of Kashmir, joined Hizbul Mujahideen and soon took over as chief of the militant group. A year later, he framed the constitution of HuM and since then has been leading the largest Kashmiri separatist movement.
Salahuddin also heads an alliance of over a dozen militant groups in Kashmir called the United Jihad Council (UJC), which says it fights for the right of self-determination for the residents of Kashmir.
According to the India Express, Salahuddin has “played a key hand in fueling militancy in Kashmir over the last 27 years.” He is known for supplying arms and training young recruits and sending them to Kashmir for militant activities, the Mumbai-based newspaper added.
Why a 'global terrorist'?
The State Department said sanctions against Salahuddin were justified because he is, and has been, “a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”
“In September 2016, Salahuddin vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict,” U.S. diplomats said.
HuM is one of the major militant groups fighting Indian troops in Kashmir and also is blamed for attacks on Indian Army targets outsiode the Vale of Kashmir.
Pakistan has criticized the U.S. for declaring Syed Salahuddin a terrorist, contending the State Department’s decision is an effort to please India and to undermine the efforts of Kashmiri people fighting for their legitimate rights.
Pakistan defends 'legitimate struggle'
Islamabad maintains that the militants fighting New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir are involved in a legitimate struggle for freedom and self-determination.
“Over the past year, the world has witnessed an intensification of the brutal policies of repression being pursued by the Indian occupation forces," said Pakistani foreign office spokesman Nafees Zakaria. "Despite this relentless state terror, the Kashmiris remain undeterred and unbowed."
“This decision has not been taken by the United Nations. We are not bound to implement U.S. decisions," said Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister's adviser on foreign affairs.
"We will continue moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiris,” Aziz said last week at a forum for Kashmiri journalists in Islamabad.
History of Kashmir Dispute
The Kashmir conflict emerged right after Pakistan and India gained Independence from British rule in 1947.
India controls a larger portion of the Himalayan region of Kashmir than Pakistan. Both neighbors claim Kashmir in its entirety as an integral part of their territory.
Militants operate on both sides of the conflict, and India and Pakistan consistently blame each other for allowing terrorists to use their territory to plot and carry out cross-border attacks.
The two South Asian powers have gone to war over Kashmir three times: at the time of partition, in 1947, and later in 1965 and 1999. Since both India and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons, the element of risk in such conflicts has now risen exponentially.
What is Hizbul Mujahideen?
Founded in 1989 in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Hizbul Mujahideen - 'the Party of Holy Warriors' - is considered to be the largest militant group in Kashmir. It has been been branded a terrorist organization by India, the European Union and the United States.
Hizbul Mujahideen reportedly was established to counter the separatist group Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which advocated for complete independence of Kashmir rather than unification with Pakistan.
HuM has always advocated for merger of all of Kashmir, including the portion now under India's control, with Pakistan.
The militant group still has a large number of operatives on both sides of Kashmir, but its numbers have been shrinking. Hizbul Mujahideen was estimated to have around 10,000 members in 1990, but that figure had declined to 1,500 by 2011.
The group has a women's wing, Banat-ul-Islam. It also operates the partisan media outlet Kashmir Press International.
Many other active militant groups
Over a dozen militant separatist groups are fighting in Indian-held Kashmir. Most of them are based in the Pakistani-administered portion of the Kashmir Valley. India has repeatedly blamed the groups for inciting violence in Kashmir, and the issue has kept the relationship between India and Pakistan tense for decades.
Last year, at least 17 Indian army personnel were killed and over two dozen injured in militant attacks on an Indian army headquarters near the national border with Pakistan. New Delhi blamed Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, one of the UJC groups, for carrying out the attack.
Indian security forces in Kashmir have been accused by rights groups for widespread violations of human rights, including indiscriminate arrests and torture.