Top Hizbul commander Sabzar Ahmad Bhat alias Abu Zarar, a close aide of militant ‘poster boy’ Burhan Wani, was killed on Saturday after a gunfight in Tral in south Kashmir, triggering widespread protests in the Valley once again, with one civilian death reported and 35 injured, including five policemen. Authorities were bracing to prevent a recurrence of the 2016 unrest that saw nearly 100 dead.
In another gunfight, six militants were killed by the army when an infiltration bid was foiled on Saturday in Rampur sector of the Line of Control in Baramulla district.
Sabzar, 28, was killed in a four-hour-long gunfight in a village in Tral sub-division of Pulwama district. He was named as the successor of Wani after the latter was killed in a gunfight with security forces on July 8 last year. However, another Hizbul commander Zakir Rashid Bhat alias Zakir Musa, took over the reins of the outfit’s Valley operations.
The Hurriyat Conference has called for a two-day valley wide shutdown to protest the killing of Bhat and also called for a “March to Tral” on May 30.
The authorities imposed curfew in seven police station areas in the Old City and one in uptown Maisuma as a preventive measure. The funeral of Bhat is set to take place on Sunday in Tral.
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chief Yasin Malik visited Bhat’s native village of Rutsana and met the militant’s mother to express condolences. He also attended the funeral of Faizan Ahmed, another militant killed along with Bhat, in the village, which saw hundreds gathered.
The Tral gunfight ensued after a patrol of the army’s counter-insurgency unit Rashtriya Rifles was fired upon near Tral town late on Friday evening. The security forces quickly surrounded two houses in Saimoh village where the militants had taken shelter.
A fierce gunfight started in the village on Saturday morning and ended when the houses the militants had been using as fortified bunkers were destroyed, police said.
State police chief SP Vaid had earlier said that three militants were trapped in the security force cordon, but during search the bodies of only two were recovered from the debris of the demolished houses. One of them was identified as of Bhat, who carried a reward of Rs 10 lakh on his head.
“The bodies of Sabzar Bhat and his accomplice identified as Faizan Ahmad have been retrieved and identified,” police said.
As soon as news about the gunfight spread to neighbouring villages, dozens of protesters marched to the site and pelted stones at the security forces.
A civilian was killed and over two dozen protesters were injured during the clashes in Tral. Police sources said that the third militant, a foreigner, took advantage of the tumult to escape.
Valley police chief Muneer Khan said the civilian died in cross firing between the holed up militants and the security forces.
As news of the killing spread, a spontaneous shutdown was observed in all districts and major towns of the Valley and protests started in Anantnag, Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama, Badgam, Ganderbal, Srinagar and Kupwara.
Public transport went off the roads throughout the Valley as people rushed home in their private vehicles while others walked long distances. Schools and colleges were also shut.
Over 30 people were injured in clashes at different places in the Valley. Five security personnel were also injured.
Security forces also resorted to pellet gun firing at the protesters in which 12 people received injuries.
Authorities quickly suspended Internet services in the Valley and blocked all social networking sites, which had been restored only on Friday after over a month.
Heavy deployment of paramilitary and police have been made at all district headquarters and sensitive places in the Valley to ensure that the situation remains under control.
All train services have been suspended, and the state civil services examinations postponed.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti held a meeting of top security and intelligence officials to ensure that the situation does not flare up like it did in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing last year when 94 civilian protesters were killed in the nearly six-month long unrest that followed.
She asked the officials to ensure that law and order is fully maintained and also that there are no civilian casualties.