Four persons, including two teenagers, were killed and over 60 injured as security forces opened fire on protesters who had gathered near the site of an encounter in Kulgam on Wednesday. While a soldier was killed and two others injured in the 12-hour encounter, three militants are reported to have escaped. The dead soldier has been identified as Sada Gunakara Rao (24), a resident of Andhra Pradesh. “Four civilians have been killed,” J&K’s Director General of Police (DGP) S P Vaid told The Indian Express. Asked whether the militants had escaped, he said: “I don’t know. I think after we called off the operation, people took them (militants) out.”
This is the second incident of civilians being killed during an encounter in South Kashmir in less than a fortnight. On April 1, four civilians were killed in Kachdora village of neighbouring Shopian district when security forces opened fire on protesters during an encounter. A joint team of J&K Police, Army and paramilitary forces had launched a cordon-and-search operation in Khudwani village of Kulgam on Tuesday night, following intelligence inputs about the presence of three Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants. As the forces were moving in on a cluster of houses, the militants opened fire, triggering a gunfight which lasted till Wednesday noon.
Meanwhile, hundreds of youths from Khudwani and surrounding villages marched towards the encounter site on Wednesday morning, and pelted stones at the security forces. As the security forces opened fire, four protesters were killed. They have been identified as Sharjeel Ahmad Sheikh (26), a resident of Khudwani in Kulgam, Faisal Elahi (15) of Melhora, Shopian, Bilal Ahmad Tantray (18) of Kujar village in Qaimoh, and Ajaz Ahmad Palla (30), of Tulkhun, Bijbehara.
Sheikh’s family members claimed that he was shot inside his house. He was set to get married on April 23. “We have received 45 injured people in hospitals in Kulgam and four in Anantnag. Six of the injured have been shifted to Bijbehara,” said Chief Medical Officer (CMO) of Anantnag, Dr Fazil Kochak, who holds additional charge as CMO, Kulgam. “All of them have suffered pellet injuries,” he said.
While intermittent firing between militants and security personnel continued till Wednesday morning, the latter resorted to heavy weaponry when the protests near the encounter site intensified. Security forces blasted three houses where the militants were suspected to be hiding. But no bodies were recovered from the rubble. Police sources said they had received information that Lashkar’s district commander for Anantnag, Azad Ahmad Malik, Bilal Ahmad, and a militant who had just joined the outfit were holed up in the village.
Villagers said that as soon as the encounter ended, the three militants appeared in the village and raised pro-freedom slogans. They reportedly took part in a procession too. Meanwhile, separatists have called a statewide shutdown on Thursday in protest against the civilian deaths.