SRINAGAR, INDIA - Assailants on Tuesday killed a prominent separatist leader in Indian-controlled Kashmir, officials and residents said, as anti-India protests and clashes followed a gunbattle that killed four rebels and an army commando in the disputed region.
Fighting began early Tuesday after police and soldiers cordoned off a village on a tip that militants were hiding in a civilian house, said army spokesman Col. Rajesh Kalia. He said militants ignored calls of surrender and fired at the soldiers and in the exchange the four were killed.
Police said one soldier from India's special forces unit was killed and two soldiers injured in the fighting.
Local residents said soldiers blasted the civilian house with explosives.
As news of the rebels' killing spread, hundreds of villagers seeking an end to Indian rule hit the streets to show solidarity with militants, sparking clashes with government forces.
At least four women were injured when troops fired bullets, shotgun pellets and tear gas to confront stone-throwing protesters.
Gunmen sprayed gunfire toward Hafizullah Mir, a top political leader of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, a group that challenges India's sovereignty over Kashmir, at his home in the southern Achabal area. Mir died on the spot while his wife was wounded in the attack, police and residents said.
Rebel groups and separatist leaders called it an assassination and blamed Indian authorities, while police called the killing the handiwork of militants.
Mir was released from jail last month after two years imprisonment in India.
Tehreek-e-Hurriyat had said recently that Mir was receiving life threats over the telephone.
Kashmir is divided between rivals India and Pakistan and both claim the territory in its entirety.
Most Kashmiris support rebel demands that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. In recent years, mainly young Kashmiris have displayed open solidarity with the rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations.
Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.