Pakistan comes out in support of militant designated as global terrorist by US, says he is a freedom fighter

Syed Salahuddin (right) chief of Hezbul Mujahedeen and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, (left) prays at a rally on Saturday, June 28, 2008, in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir.
Syed Salahuddin (right) chief of Hezbul Mujahedeen and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, (left) prays at a rally on Saturday, June 28, 2008, in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir. PHOTO: AP

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan came out in defence of militants fighting Indian security forces in Kashmir on Tuesday (June 27), saying it was a legitimate struggle for freedom, after the United States put the head of one of the groups on its list of global terrorists.

The US State Department's designation of Syed Salahuddin, the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group based in Pakistan, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist was unjustified, Pakistan's foreign office said.

The US decision came just days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the White House for his first talks with US President Donald Trump.

India, which blames Pakistan for stoking the 28-year-old armed revolt in Muslim-majority Kashmir, has under Modi stepped up international efforts to put pressure on Pakistan to act against militant groups operating from its soil.

Pakistan denies giving material help to the Kashmiri separatists but reiterated on Tuesday it would continue to provide political, diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri people in their struggle for self-determination.

"The 70-year-old indigenous struggle of Kashmiris in the Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir remains legitimate. The designation of individuals supporting the Kashmiri right to self-determination as terrorists is completely unjustified," the foreign ministry statement said.

A spokesman for Salahuddin, who is based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, did not answer his handphone.

Tensions have been running high along the de facto border which divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Over the past year, militant violence and anti-India protests have increased as Modi's right-wing government seeks to tackle the revolt with a firmer hand.

At the talks on Monday (June 26), Modi and Trump called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries, the White House said in a statement.

Salahuddin's Hizbul Mujahideen is the biggest militant fighting group Indian forces in Kashmir.

Unlike the Lashkar-e- Taiba and other groups operating from Pakistan soil, the Hizb is a largely indigenous Kashmir group and its leader seen as a hero.

In its announcement, the State Department said that in September 2016, Salahuddin had vowed to block any peaceful resolution to the Kashmir conflict, threatened to train more Kashmiri suicide bombers and vowed to turn the Kashmir valley "into a graveyard for Indian forces".

As a consequence of the designation as a global terrorist, US individuals are banned from engaging in financial transactions with Salahuddin and all his property in the US is blocked, the State Department said.

Salahuddin, who is from Badgam town in Indian Kashmir, was an Islamist politician who turned to militancy after he lost an election for the Kashmir legislative assembly in 1987, which he says was "massively rigged" by India.

He first crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 1990 and went back to Indian Kashmir several times for militant action when he would also meet his family under cover of darkness.