SRINAGAR, India - At least four men were killed in Kashmir when government forces fired on anti-India protesters who thronged a village where soldiers battled a group of militants, officials said Wednesday. One soldier was also killed.
The violence began overnight when Indian soldiers cordoned off the southern village of Khudwani on a tip that rebels were hiding there, police said.
After fighting broke out between soldiers and the militants, anti-India protests erupted in Khudwani and neighbouring villages, with stone-throwing protesters marching toward the gunbattle. The protesters, shouting slogans eulogizing dead militants and demanding an end to Indian rule over the region, were marching in solidarity with the militants and to help them escape the security cordon.
Government forces fired rifles, shotguns and tear gas to stop the protesters from reaching the gunbattle. Four men were killed and at least 40 civilians injured, officials said.
Police said one soldier died and at least two other soldiers were injured in the battle. They said the militants were able to escape. According to local residents, soldiers blasted the two houses with explosives.
Security officials called off the operation following the massive protests and clashes in the area.
As news of the killings spread, thousands hit the streets chanting, "We want freedom" and "Go India, go back."
Several clashes were also reported in other areas of Kashmir. In Srinagar, the region's main city, police fired tear gas to stop students from marching in the city's main business area.
Separatists have called for a shutdown of the region on Thursday and Friday to denounce the killings.
Senior separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said Kashmiris were "left with no option other than to come out on roads" to protest.
"The way our young generation is being targeted and killed (by India) reflects that it is being done under a well-planned conspiracy," he said.
Wednesday's violence came as the region was recovering from days of anti-India protests, a security clampdown and a shutdown sponsored by separatists following fighting between Kashmiri rebels and Indian troops on April 1 that killed 13 militants and three soldiers. Five civilians were also killed in subsequent clashes with government forces.
A new generation of Kashmiri rebels, especially in the southern parts of the disputed region, has revived the militancy and challenged New Delhi's rule with guns and effective use of social media.
In recent years, Kashmiris, mainly youths, have displayed open solidarity with rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations.
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim it in its entirety.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989, demanding Kashmir be made part of Pakistan or become an independent country. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies.
Most Kashmiris support the rebels' cause while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.