SRINAGAR, India: Militants disguised as cricketers killed five paramilitary police in an ambush in the main city of Indian Kashmir on Wednesday, officials said, in the deadliest attack for nearly five years.
Two gunmen from the local pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, which claimed the attack, were shot dead after the assault on a police compound housing a barracks, school and playing field, the officials said.
A senior police officer said the extremists from Kashmir’s biggest rebel group pretended to be joining children for a game of cricket before taking out automatic weapons from a bag and throwing a grenade.
“They came into the compound carrying cricket gear in which they hid their weapons. We recovered weapons and grenades from their bags later,” Sudhir Kumar, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) spokesman, told AFP.
Four civilians and four CRPF soldiers were injured in the attack, said police.
The Kashmir News Service, a Srinagar news agency, reported it received a call from a Hizbul Mujahideen spokesman who claimed the “guerrilla attack” and warned that more would follow.
Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh said in New Delhi the dead gunmen appeared “not local but from across the border” in Pakistan and added two other militants who were not involved in the attack might still be at large in Srinagar.
Wednesday’s deaths marked the deadliest single day for Indian security forces since July 2008 when a landmine killed nine soldiers on a bus on the outskirts of Srinagar.
The attack comes as a 23-year anti-India insurgency has been on the wane.
Violence across the region has been at its lowest since the revolt began in 1989, boosting the vital tourism industry in the scenic Himalayan region.
But tensions have mounted since the execution last month of a Kashmiri separatist over a deadly 2001 attack on the national parliament in New Delhi.
Mohammed Afzal Guru was convicted over the attack, but he retained wide support in Muslim-majority Kashmir where many said he had not got a fair trial.
Much of Kashmir, which is divided between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both, has since been under repeated curfews while protests and strikes have disrupted daily life.
Police said a 24-year-old man, Altaf Ahmed Wani, was shot dead on Wednesday by paramilitary forces when they opened fire to stop people hurling stones at their armoured vehicle.
But several bystanders who said they witnessed the killing contested the account and said Wani was shot dead as he crossed a road and there was no stone-throwing.
Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah argued recently the national government should abolish emergency laws giving federal security forces in Kashmir legal impunity to shoot-to-kill.
The militant attack could undermine his campaign, which Abdullah sees as necessary to defuse resentment over alleged human rights abuses by the hundreds of thousands of troops in the region.
More than 47,000 people have died in the fighting by an official count while rights groups estimate up to 70,000 have lost their lives.
The Hizbul Mujahideen is fighting for the transfer of Indian Kashmir to Pakistan.
Violence in the region has its roots in the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 when the Hindu leader of Kashmir opted for his mostly Muslim subjects to join secular India instead of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The region is now split between the two countries along a UN-monitored line of control, but both claim it in full and have fought two wars over its control.
The last major rebel attack in Srinagar was in January 2010 when two militants from another pro-Pakistan militant group opened fire and took refuge in a hotel. Both were killed as were a policeman and a bystander.
Last October, gunmen opened fired on a popular hotel, killing a bellboy.
In May 2004, 28 Indian troopers and their relatives were killed in a blast carried out by Hizbul militants in southern Kashmir.