Nine killed as Indian security forces battle Kashmir militants after suicide bombing

Nine people including five troops died in a fire fight in India’s disputed Kashmir region on Monday, days after a suicide bomber killed 42 paramilitary force members in the insurgency-ridden state.

Police said the gun battle erupted after security forces surrounded Pinglan village in Pulwama district, 20 miles south of Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar, following a tip-off that militants were hiding there.

As the forces launched search operations in the village, they came under heavy gunfire from militants hiding in a house. An Indian Army major, three other soldiers, a policeman, three suspected militants and a civilian were killed in the shootout.

Police said the two militants killed in the attack were involved in last Thursday’s bombing of the paramilitary convoy in nearby Awantipora, the deadliest single attack on the Indian security forces in nearly 30 years in Kashmir.

They claimed both of them were Pakistani nationals and members of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM or Army of Mohammad) Islamist group that has claimed responsibility for last week’s bombing.   

India holds the Pakistani military’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate responsible for planning the strike that was executed by a 19-year old Kashmiri student from Srinagar.

"The ISI’s fingerprints are all over the bombing as the 19-year old suicide bomber could not have organised such a major operation by himself" a senior security official said on condition of anonymity.

The attack replicates similar bombings in Afghanistan and one carried out last week on the Pakistan-Iran border in which 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel were killed, he added. 

The bomber had recorded a video message before the strike, which surfaced on social media soon after.   

"I had never imagined my son would become a suicide bomber” the bomber’s father told the NDTV news channel. "I don’t know why it is happening," he added.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised a "jaw breaking" response to Pakistan, which has denied any involvement in the bombing.

With tension mounting between the nuclear-armed neighbours over the bombing, Pakistan has withdrawn its High Commissioner to New Delhi for consultations.

India had recalled its envoy in Islamabad last week for "discussions" within hours of the convoy attack.

India has also retracted the Most Favoured Nation trade privileges it had unilaterally extended to Pakistan for several years and at the weekend slapped a 200 per cent import duty on all goods imported from its neighbour.

Analysts said however that both measures were unlikely to adversely impact Pakistan, as annual bilateral trade between the two sides was limited.

India’s home ministry has warned against rising sectarian tensions across the country, with scores of Kashmiris living outside their state suffering violence in response to the suicide bombing.

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Many young Kashmiri students in northern Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand states have been asked to leave their rented homes, whilst others have been severely beaten by locals enraged over the bombings.

As the bodies of the paramilitary personnel returned to their homes across India for cremation and burial at the weekend, passionate crowds waved the national flag, chanted patriotic slogans and demanded vengeance against Pakistan and Kashmiris.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947, but claimed in its entirety by both.

The two sides fought two wars over Kashmir and their armies clashed once again in 1999 in the state’s mountainous Kargil region for 11 weeks, resulting in the deaths of 1200 soldiers. The conflict threatened to escalate into a nuclear exchange but was defused after Washington’s intervention.

India also blames Pakistan for stoking the insurgency which erupted in Kashmir in 1989 and has claimed over 70,000 lives, an allegation that is denied by Islamabad.