SRINAGAR, India (3rd UPDATE) – Indian troops suffered new losses Monday, February 18, in a battle with Kashmir militants that left 9 dead, officials said, just days after a major suicide bomb attack escalated tensions with neighboring Pakistan.
The confrontation piled more pressure on the Indian government, which has blamed Pakistan for the suicide attack last Thursday, February 14, on a convoy that killed at least 41 paramilitaries.
Several hours of shooting rocked the Pulwama district, south of Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, after officials said 4 soldiers, a policeman, 3 militants and a civilian were killed in the latest clash.
An army major was among the dead, along with 3 militants from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) group which claimed last week’s attack, military and police officials said.
Six senior army men including a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel were injured in the hours-long gun battle, a police official told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“A police deputy inspector general has also suffered injuries,” the official said.
The identity of the militants was not revealed but local media reports said one of those killed was Abdul Rashid Gazi, a Pakistani national whose role in Thursday’s attack was being probed by investigators.
Hundreds of soldiers raided villages and fired warning shots at a suspected militant hideout, unleashing the firefight in the village of Pinglan late Sunday, February 17.
Images showed flames and smoke billowing out of one of the residential houses in the area.
Government forces have launched a massive hunt since an explosives-packed van struck the convoy transporting 2,500 security men close to Pinglan on Thursday.
A video on social media purportedly shows a pre-recorded message by the 20-year-old Kashmiri suicide bomber warning of more attacks.
India accuses Pakistan of harboring the JeM group, a charge Islamabad denies.
With tensions mounting, Islamabad recalled its envoy to New Delhi for “consultations” while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for greater international action against “terrorism.”
“The cruel terrorist attack in Pulwana shows that time for talks is over,” Modi said after a meeting with Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri in New Delhi.
Thursday’s attack sparked anger and outrage across India.
Thousands of demonstrators staged angry rallies in several Indian cities over the weekend, with attacks on Kashmiris reported in several towns.
Protesters in New Delhi on Sunday burned effigies of Pakistani and JeM leaders.
Many small businesses closed Monday following a call for a nationwide shutdown.
In the capital, a Kashmiri man was beaten by a mob that accused him of chanting anti-India slogans. He was later detained by police.
A curfew remained in force for a fourth day in Jammu city, in the Hindu-majority part of Kashmir, where mobs attacked and set fire to properties belonging to Kashmiri Muslims.
Thousands of residents in the city have fled to Muslim-majority areas.
The government faces increased pressure because of an upcoming national election.
New Delhi has withdrawn trade privileges for Pakistan and ended police protection for 4 Kashmiri separatist leaders.
Some commentators have called for military action against Pakistan.
India launched what it called ‘surgical strikes’ on targets in Pakistani Kashmir in September 2016, 11 days after a militant attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir which left 19 soldiers dead. Pakistan denies the strikes took place.
But experts say India has limited options for action now.
“Whatever retaliation India takes will be symbolic. It won’t have any real impact,” Ajay Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi based Institute for Conflict Management, told AFP.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said during a visit to Islamabad that his country “will try to de-escalate tensions” between India and Pakistan. He is due to visit New Delhi with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday, February 19.
JeM is one of several militant groups fighting Indian troops in Kashmir, which has been split between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947. Both claim the Himalayan region and have fought two wars over the territory.
Kashmir is the world’s most militarized zone with some 500,000 Indian troops deployed to fight a rebellion that broke out in 1989.
Tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians, have died in the conflict. Violence has spiked since 2016 with almost 600 killed last year, the highest toll in a decade. – Rappler.com