Indian troops killed four rebel fighters in gun battles in Indian-administered Kashmir, including the senior commander of the biggest separatist group fighting New Delhi in the disputed Himalayan region.
Hundreds of Indian soldiers launched an operation late on Tuesday after receiving intelligence that Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo was hiding in a village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Naikoo’s death is being seen as a major victory for India’s counterinsurgency efforts and is likely to spark more unrest in the disputed region.
Police and army soldiers launched the operation in the Awantipora area in southern Kashmir based on a tip that some rebel commanders were sheltering there.
They used earth movers to dig up several patches of land, including a school playground, looking for possible underground hideouts, residents said.
Troops blasted at least two civilian homes with explosives, a common tactic employed by Indian troops in Kashmir.
“He was trapped in a house and early today a gun battle took place during which he and his associate were killed,” Kashmir’s inspector general of police, Vijay Kumar, told Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
Two rebels were killed in another firefight nearby, Kumar added.
Naikoo, 35, joined the separatists in 2012, two years after about 100 people were killed by troops during a restive summer marked by protests and violence.
A former mathematics teacher with a bounty of 1.2 million rupees ($15,800) on his head, Naikoo was an aide to the charismatic Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was killed in July 2016, leading to months of unrest.
After Wani’s death, Naikoo helped give new life to the rebel movement. He unified the ranks, which had been divided by splinter factions.
Dibyesh Anand, who teaches international relations at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, said that Naikoo’s killing will make “the relationship between Kashmir and India much worse than what it is”.
“What’s likely to happen is more frustration, more anger, more anxiety that ordinary Kashmiri population would have,” he said.
“The main intention of [India’s] Hindu nationalist government is not only to completely occupy Kashmir, but also to erase any form of resistance that Kashmiris have.”