NEW DELHI - Four Indian soldiers and two suspected militants were killed Monday in a fierce gun battle as Indian security forces hunted for the organizers of a deadly suicide bombing that killed 40 paramilitary personnel in Indian Kashmir and escalated tensions between India and Pakistan.
The gun battle erupted when militants opened fire on an army contingent as search operations were being conducted in a village close to where the suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a paramilitary convoy last week.
Police said the militants killed were members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad Islamist group which has claimed responsibility for the attack and suspect that one of them was the main organizer of the assault.
It was the deadliest militant attack in Indian Kashmir since the Himalayan region was gripped by a violent separatist insurgency three decades ago.
New Delhi has blamed the suicide attack on Pakistan, whom it accuses of harboring groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad that carry out terror strikes in India. Pakistan has denied all involvement.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has promised a strong response to the attack, called for global action against terrorism on Monday during a press appearance with visiting Argentine President Mauricio Macri.
Modi said that the latest attack in Kashmir shows that the time for talks is over. “Now it is necessary for the whole world to join hands to take strong steps against terrorism. To hesitate from taking action against terrorism and their supporters is also encouraging terrorism,” he said.
The attack comes at a sensitive time — India heads into into national elections in less than two months, and it has put the Indian leader under pressure to take punitive action against Pakistan.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is expected to try and shore up its political support with big ticket farm giveaways and tax cuts for the middle class in its final federal budget on Friday, months before elections.
Modi is facing growing discontent over depressed farm incomes and doubts over whether his policies are creating enough jobs.
Modi, who has projected himself as a strong leader, has repeatedly warned of retaliation at a series of public meetings over the weekend.
“The fire that is raging in your hearts is in my heart too,” he told a huge crowd in Bihar on Sunday. A day earlier he said that “how, when, where and who will punish the killers and their promoters will be decided by our forces, who are capable of dealing with the situation.”
Over the weekend several cities witnessed protests expressing solidarity with the soldiers who were killed and demanding punishment for the attack. There also have been sporadic incidents of harassment of Kashmiri students and businessmen in some places, prompting the Home Ministry to issue an alert to ensure the safety of all Kashmiris.
Analysts said Modi will have to take into account public opinion as he mulls a response to the attacks but have warned that any military option carries the risk of escalation between two countries that have fought three wars.
In 2016, India had conducted surgical strikes on militant camps following an attack on an army camp.
Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan since 1947, is at the heart of the troubled ties between the neighbors. Two of their three wars have been fought over the Himalayan region while an attack on India’s parliament, also blamed on the Jaish-e-Mohammad, brought them to the brink of a fourth war in 2001.
Islamabad has rejected any link to the attack on Thursday.
India and Pakistan each administer a part of Kashmir, but both claim the territory in its entirety.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989, demanding Indian-controlled Kashmir be united either under Pakistani rule or established as an independent country.