Firefight leaves seven dead in disputed Kashmir province, Indian security forces say

Five Indian security personnel and two militants were killed in a major spike in fighting in disputed Kashmir when the army and police stormed a house where rebels were holding hostages, officials said.

A five-member counterinsurgency team entered the house in northwestern Handwara area on late Saturday and “successfully extricated the civilians,” an Indian army statement said.

The security forces came under heavy gunfire from militants and in the ensuing firefight, two militants and all the team members died, it said.

The statement did not specify how many civilians were rescued. No militant group has immediately commented and there was no independent confirmation of the hostage-taking.

A police officer said an army colonel and a major, along with a police officer and two other soldiers, tried to storm the hideout when they were gunned down by the militants. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy.

The officer said the reinforcement of special forces was called in and they shot dead the two militants but other two likely escaped.

India has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations across Kashmir in recent months despite a lockdown to combat the coronavirus. Militants fighting Indian rule have not ceased their attacks on government forces and alleged informants either.

There has also been almost daily fighting over the last several months along the rugged and mountainous highly militarized frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

On Friday, two Indian soldiers were killed in border skirmishes. On Wednesday, a Pakistani soldier and three civilians on both sides of Kashmir were killed in another bout of fighting.

Rebel groups in Indian-held Kashmir demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training anti-India rebels. Pakistan denies this, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support to the militants and to Kashmiris who oppose Indian rule.

Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.