India (HRNW): Four soldiers have been killed in Indian-administered Kashmir in a gun battle with militants, police say. The clash occurred in Pulwama district, where more than 40 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide attack on Thursday, raising tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. A civilian and two alleged militants were also killed as Indian troops searched for suspects. Meanwhile Pakistan recalled its ambassador for consultations. India had already recalled its top diplomat from Pakistan in the wake of Thursday’s attack – in which it said the Pakistani state was complicit. Pakistan denies any role in the bombing, which was claimed by a group based on its soil – Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) Police say two militants who were trapped in Pinglena village were killed in Monday’s operation. Both are JeM members and one is a Pakistani national, authorities said.
Heavy gunfire has been heard, and Indian security officials are appealing to villagers to stay indoors. Police told media that when they fired “warning shots” at the house where the alleged militants were hiding, they fired back. One officer critically injured was taken to hospital. The owner of the house was killed during the exchange of fire, police added. Indian security forces have been hunting for militants with suspected links to JeM following Thursday’s bombing, which saw a vehicle packed with explosives ram a convoy of 78 buses carrying Indian security forces. Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan since independence. Both nuclear-armed countries claim all of Muslim-majority Kashmir but control only parts of it; they have fought two wars and a limited conflict in the region.
Last Thursday’s attack was the deadliest attack against Indian forces since an Islamist-led insurgency began in 1989. It sparked anti-Pakistan protests in some Indian cities and angry mobs targeted Kashmiri students and businessmen. Mobile internet services in Indian-administered Kashmir were cut over the weekend and the Indian government has pulled security normally provided to at least five Kashmiri separatist leaders. Isolated incidents of students from Kashmir being beaten up or evicted from their accommodation in northern Indian states have also been reported. India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) offered help to students in need, but also warned of false reports. In broader terms, there has has been a spike in violence in Indian-administered Kashmir since Indian forces killed a popular militant in 2016. Significant numbers of young men have joined the insurgency in recent years and the funerals of well-known militants draw huge crowds who want to pay respects to “martyrs”.
India has been accused of using excessive force to control protests – with thousands of people suffering eye injuries or being blinded by pellet guns. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing an election later this year, has vowed a strong response and says he will give the military free rein. The last time an attack on Indian forces close to this magnitude occurred in Kashmir was in 2016, when 19 soldiers were killed at a base. In response to that, India carried out “surgical strikes” which involved Indian soldiers crossing the de facto border to hit Pakistani posts. This time analysts say that heavy snow in the region could make that kind of limited ground response impossible. But there are fears that going further, for example with air strikes, could lead to Pakistani retaliation and a significant escalation. So far India has focused on retaliation by economic and diplomatic means. It has revoked Pakistan’s Most Favoured Nation trading status, raised customs duties to 200% and vowed to isolate it in the international community.