Srinagar, India - Hundreds of angry villagers clashed with police in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday following suspicions that security forces shot dead seven civilians they mistook for rebels, a police officer and a witness said.
The villagers torched a police station in the forested Kupwara region near the de facto border with Pakistan to demand security forces hand over the bodies for identification and for burial, the officer said.
“Police fired tear gas and warning shots in the air to disperse the angry crowd who were hurling rocks at them,” the officer said on condition of anonymity.
A local resident, Manzoor Ahmed, said by phone that a bullet wounded one villager before paramilitary reinforcements were called in to control the situation.
He said villagers suspect that the seven killed late on Monday were locals rather than armed rebels who had infiltrated from across the border.
The situation was defused when police gave the bodies to a local Muslim religious group for burial, which was attended by hundreds of the villagers.
“After ascertaining that none of them were locals the bodies have been buried,” senior police officer JP Singh told reporters, adding that 15 people were injured in the clashes.
The army said the seven suspected militants were shot dead in the remote village of Dardpora, 140 kilometres from the main city of Srinagar, during a joint operation with police.
Lieutenant General S.K. Saini told reporters in Kupwara: “There is no civilian in the group of terrorists that has been eliminated.”
Despite the reassurances, separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani called for a general strike in the region on Friday to protest at what he called the mysterious killings.
The incident must be probed by an independent international body, he said.
The shootings took place near the highly militarised border that divides the Himalayan region between India and Pakistan. Both countries have claimed the territory in full since independence from Britain in 1947.
About a dozen militant groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for independence or for merger of the territory with Pakistan. The fighting has left tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, dead.
The Indian government and security establishment have recently expressed fears of a possible escalation in rebel activity before India's general election due by the end of May.