Indian police hunting for fugitive gunmen in Kashmir

Indian soldiers standing guard near the site of a gunfight with militants in Khudwani village in Kulgam, Indian Kashmir, on April 11, 2018.
Indian soldiers standing guard near the site of a gunfight with militants in Khudwani village in Kulgam, Indian Kashmir, on April 11, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SRINAGAR, INDIA (AFP) - Police on Thursday (April 12) were hunting for three gunmen in Indian Kashmir thought killed in a shootout with the army, but who turned up later in a marketplace celebrating their escape.

Officials had declared the shooters dead after Indian forces surrounded a home in Kulgam area in southern Kashmir on Wednesday and exchanged fire with its occupants.

The battle ended with five homes being completely destroyed by heavy explosives. But when soldiers searched the wreckage, the bodies of the three gunmen were nowhere to be found.

Witnesses said the alleged militants turned up later at a market on the back of motorbikes, firing celebratory rounds in the air. One had suffered a gunshot wound to the leg.

It is rare for gunmen to escape an army siege unscathed in Indian-administered Kashmir, where half a million soldiers have been deployed.

Sixty-one suspected militants have been killed since the start of the year in the restive region. More than 200 died over the course of 2017, one of the bloodiest years of the decade.

In a statement, police alleged the shooters managed to escape by mingling with a large crowd of civilians who gathered at the scene chanting and throwing stones at Indian forces.

"We request general public not to come close to encounter sites as it is a considerable threat," the police said in the statement issued late on Wednesday. "Efforts have been intensified to nab the escaped militants."

Four civilians died and 21 others were injured after security personnel opened fire on the crowd that gathered near the shootout. A soldier was also killed in the earlier firefight with the gunmen.

Civilians often gather in large numbers at locations where soldiers are fighting suspected militants in Kashmir, chanting slogans against Indian rule and hurling projectiles.

Tens of thousands have died since the late 1980s, when rebel groups began waging an armed insurgency against Indian rule in the divided region.

Some fight for independence and others for a merger with Pakistan.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since the end of British colonial rule of the subcontinent in 1947. Both claim the territory in its entirety.