Four rebel fighters including the commander of the banned group fighting New Delhi's rule in India-administered Kashmir were killed in Pulwama district, officials say.
Indian troops killed four fighters in gun battles in Kashmir on Wednesday, including the commander of the biggest rebel group fighting New Delhi in the disputed Himalayan region, a police official said.
Hundreds of Indian soldiers launched an operation late on Tuesday after receiving intelligence commander of the banned Hizbul Mujahideen Riyaz Naikoo was present in a village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district.
Authorities also disabled mobile internet across the India-administered region early on Wednesday to forestall large crowds from gathering in the streets to mourn his killing.
"He was trapped in a house and early today a gun battle took place during which he and his associate were killed," Kashmir's inspector-general of Police, Vijay Kumar, said.
Two rebels were killed in another gun battle nearby on Wednesday, Kumar added.
Naikoo, 35, had joined the rebels in 2010, two years after around 100 people were killed by Indian troops during a restive summer marked by pro-independence protests and violence.
A former math teacher with a bounty of 1.2 million rupees ($15,800) on his head, Naikoo was an aide to Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, who was killed in July 2016, leading to months of unrest.
"It is a major success for the troops in Kashmir," Kumar said.
Soon after top rebel commander Riyaz Naikoo was killed #Kashmir descends into yet another communication blackout. Authorities snap mobile phone networks!— Parvaiz Bukhari (@parvaizbukhari) May 6, 2020
'Conversation between sword and neck'
In a rare interview with Al Jazeera in 2018, Naikoo had rejected negotiations or back-channel talks with India, saying "negotiations can only lead to a fruitful outcome when they take place between parties that recognise each other as equals."
"Negotiations cannot happen between a master and a slave or, as the great thinker of the Palestinian armed struggle, Ghassan Kanafani, very aptly put it, as 'the conversation between the sword and the neck'," Naikoo said.
"Some Indian leaders insist that we must talk within the ambit of the Indian constitution; what they really mean is capitulation. They are not interested in honouring our legitimate political demands. They are only interested in pushing for policies and mechanisms that further entrench the occupational apparatus," the rebel commander had told the Qatar-based news website.
For decades, rebels have fought an armed conflict against Indian rule in Kashmir, with the majority of them wanting independence for the Himalayan region, or to join New Delhi's arch-rival Pakistan.
Kashmir is claimed in whole but ruled in part by both India and Pakistan.
Indian troops have intensified operations in the region, despite UN calls for "global ceasefire" during the coronavirus pandemic.
Communication gag has been reimposed in Kashmir. Mobile Internet and calling services have been shut down. Only landlines and broadband services are operational. People facing Covid19 related emergencies are going to have a tough time.— Mir S (@Meenwhile) May 6, 2020
Tensions have been running high in the area since August 5 last year when India unilaterally abrogated semi-autonomy of the region — key to its controversial accession treaty with then Kashmir rulers and annexed it, infuriating locals as well as neighbouring Pakistan.
Kashmiris say the "settler colonial" move was aimed at changing the Muslim demographics of the region by settling non-local Hindus.
Recently India unveiled a "domicile" plan under which Indians — including armed forces and bureaucrats — who have served in Kashmir for 15 years or studied there for seven years, can assume local jobs and properties.
Since late March, Indian forces have killed 36 rebels, losing around 20 soldiers, including a high-ranking army officer, during the same period, according to official data.