By Shah Abbas |
Srinagar, India, May 6 (efe-epa).- A top rebel commander, who carried a cash bounty on his head, and an associate were killed in an encounter with security forces in India-administered Kashmir on Wednesday, officials said.
Authorities enforced partial communication blackout in the troubled region to prevent street protests against the killing of Riyaz Naikoo, one of the oldest surviving commanders of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest group of indigenous militants in Kashmir.
A police officer in Srinagar confirmed to EFE that Naikoo and another militant of Hizbul Mujahideen were gunned down in a gunfight that lasted for several hours in a south Kashmir village, some 30 km from the main city of Srinagar.
The gunfight took place in Naikoo’s native village of Baigpora in Pulwama district. The military operation began late last night after an input about the presence of militants there.
Authorities have departed from the usual practice of identifying slain militants and handing over their bodies to their relatives. Instead, police give them a silent burial at undisclosed locations to prevent people from gathering for their funerals in the times of coronavirus outbreak.
But former Kashmir police chief Shesh Paul Vaid wrote on Twitter that the “elimination of top Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo in a joint operation is a big success for (Kashmir) police and security forces”.
“He was responsible for kidnapping and killing of multiple policemen,” Vaid said.
Naikoo, who took over as the head of the banned Hizbul Mujahideen militant outfit after the killing of one of the most popular commander Burhan Wani in 2016, was gunned down in an exchange of fire with security forces.
Wani’s killing triggered the deadliest of the street protests in Kashmir that left more than 100 civilians dead in the months of violent civil unrest.
Army spokesperson Colonel Rajesh Kalia said, “Two militants have been so far killed and the operation is going on”.
However, Kalia did not confirm the killing of Naikoo, 36.
As soon as the news of the shootout spread across the valley, authorities snapped mobile phone and internet service in the region, apparently to thwart street protests against his killing.
Only state-run BSNL phones were functioning in the troubled valley that saw months of communication blockade last year after the government revoked the Muslim-majority region’s semi-autonomy in a controversial decision on Aug. 5, 2019.
Among the most popular local militant leaders, Naikoo carried a reward of Rs 1.2 million (approximately $16,000) on his head.
Known to have a passion for painting roses, the man worked as a mathematics teacher at a local school before he joined militants in 2012.
According to police, Naikoo was the brain behind the abductions of cops in 2018 after police arrested close relatives of active militants from south Kashmir. The arrested civilians included his father, Assadullah Naiko.
Militants later released some 10 cops after police set free their relatives, including Assadullah.
Naikoo used to release audio messages on social media. In such one message ahead of the abrogation of semi-autonomous status by New Delhi last year, he had said, “If the special status is abrogated, every Indian will become our legitimate target.”
Indian forces killed two more militants in a separate operation at south Kashmir’s Khrew town some kilometers away from the village where Naikoo was shot dead,