Indian police deserters among four killed in Kashmir

SRINAGAR — Two low-ranking police deserters were among four rebels killed overnight in a firefight with government forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, the police and army said Friday.

The former Himalayan kingdom is divided between Pakistan and India. For decades, rebel groups have been fighting for independence from Indian rule or a merger of Kashmir with Pakistan.

The fighting has left tens of thousands dead, mostly civilians.

Soldiers laid siege to a residential area in southern Pulwama district, triggering an exchange of fire with armed militants hiding in a house late Thursday evening.

"One militant was killed in the initial encounter that went on through the night. Three more were killed during early hours today," a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP on Friday.

An Indian army spokesman, based in the main city of Srinagar, also confirmed four "terrorists" were killed in the fighting.

"Two were local militants from Jaish-e-Mohammad group and the other two were identified as SPOs who had gone missing," the police officer said, referring to the two Special Police Officers.

The officers had deserted, taking their automatic rifles, a day earlier to join the rebel ranks.

SPOs are the lowest-ranked officers in the state police.

Paid 6,000 rupees ($85) a month, they are mostly deployed for counterinsurgency duties and providing personal security for dignitaries.

Another police officer said the two killed former SPOs had gone for a day of leave to celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid, but did not report back to duty on Thursday morning.

Many SPOs have deserted the police force in the past to join the rebels in the restive region, including three who were deployed to protect a minister in the local government.

Pakistan-based JeM (Jaish-e-Mohammad) and rebel groups have been fighting some 500,000 Indian soldiers deployed in the disputed territory for decades.

Rivals India and Pakistan have separately administered Kashmir since the end of British colonial rule and Partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors both claim the entire region in full.

Gun battles between anti-India rebels and government forces are frequent in parts of the territory controlled by New Delhi.

This year more than 100 militants have been killed so far and fighters rarely last a few months after joining militant groups.

In recent years New Delhi has repeatedly said soldiers have a free hand in wiping out militancy from Kashmir, but new rebels have been joining in the fight almost as fast as they are killed by Indian forces.

India regularly accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels, an allegation Islamabad denies.

Pakistan says it only provides moral and diplomatic support to a Kashmiri struggle for the right to self-determination.

 Agence France-Presse

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