Indian Troops Kill 22 Militants in Battle Outside Famed Shrine
JAMMU, India (AP) _ Indian soldiers demolished the headquarters of a Muslim separatist group with mortars and grenades Saturday, killing 22 militants who had occupied Kashmir’s holiest shrine.
Among the dead was Shabir Siddiqui, leader of a faction of the oldest separatist group in the Muslim insurrection in Jammu-Kashmir state.
The fierce battle erupted shortly after dawn in the northern city of Srinagar when Indian troops called on the militants to surrender at their headquarters outside the Hazratbal shrine compound.
Senior police officer A.K. Suri said six adults and three children walked out of the building before the militants inside opened fire.
Troops pounded the building with grenades and mortars and raked it with machine guns until it collapsed in flames. There were no casualties among the Indian forces.
As news of the attack on the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front’s splinter group spread, street protesters in small groups began throwing rocks at police, who fired tear gas and beat them back with bamboo sticks.
Muslim militants have been fighting for six years to separate Kashmir, the only state with a Muslim majority, from Hindu-dominated India. More than 12,000 people have died in the fighting.
Saturday’s attack came four days after the militants peacefully left the Hazratbal mosque, which houses a sacred relic that devout Muslims believe is a hair from the beard of the prophet Mohammed. The militants then returned to their headquarters.
The militants had occupied the shrine for three days after a clash with police in which at least 11 people were killed.
The militants planned to barricade themselves inside the shrine again Saturday, said P.S. Gill, inspector general of police. Police recovered seven assault rifles and one machine gun from the site, Gill said.
The Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front said Indian authorities went back on their word to give the militants free passage, and had kept them under siege inside their headquarters.
Indian authorities denied they had struck any deal beyond allowing the militants to leave Hazratbal safely.
The All Party Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organization of 32 pro-militant political and religious groups, condemned the attack.
The JKLF was the first Kashmiri militant group to take up arms against India in the late 1980s. Last year, Siddiqui led a split in the group, and was supported by the Pakistan-based founder of the JKLF, Amanullah Khan.
``If India thinks by resorting to this kind of action it can wipe out the JKLF, it’s living in fool’s paradise,″ Khan said in a statement.
In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, a crowd of 200 demonstrators marched on the Indian Embassy, denouncing the killings. At least 12 protesters were arrested when they began pelting rocks at the diplomatic compound.