SRINAGAR: Commandos stormed a hotel in Indian Kashmir on Thursday where two militants had been holed up for nearly 24 hours, killing the gunmen and bringing an end to the siege.
The four-storey hotel in Srinagar, the summer capital of the volatile Himalayan region, was on fire before police announced both the pro-Pakistan extremists had been killed in a morning assault by security forces.
The gunmen — one a Pakistani and the other an Indian Kashmiri, according to police — had taken refuge in the hotel on Wednesday after throwing grenades and opening fire in Srinagar's main market area.
One police officer was killed in the attack and one bystander succumbed to his injuries Thursday.
“The operation as far as we are concerned is over,” Kuldeep Khuda, the state police chief, told reporters at the scene.
The Indian-administered section of Muslim-majority Kashmir has been wracked by a separatist and anti-India insurgency for two decades, though violence has fallen in recent years.
Divided into Indian and Pakistani-controlled zones, Kashmir has been the trigger for two wars between the South Asian rivals since their independence from Britain in 1947.
A pro-Pakistan militant group, Jamiat-ul-Mujahedin, claimed it was behind the assault, which left five police and four civilians injured. Police pointed the finger at the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
India blames LeT for the deadly attacks on Mumbai in 2008 that claimed the lives of 166 people after a highly organised rampage by 10 Islamist gunmen who attacked two luxury hotels among other targets.
Overnight in Srinagar, police fired teargas to disperse scores of anti-India and pro-militant youths who threw stones at security forces, chanting “Kashmiri Mujahedeen, we are with you” and “We want freedom”.
Khuda said the police had cleared the building from the top floor before encountering and killing the first militant early Thursday.
“The other terrorist tried to set the building on fire… and he tried to make his escape but he was shot down,” he said.
Wednesday's assault came as Indian Kashmir's chief minister marked his first year in office by pledging to slash the security force presence in the region if violence continued to decline.
Incidents of unrest in Kashmir were down by about 25 percent last year, according to police figures, and India responded by pulling out some 30,000 troops from the region.
In the mid-1990s, part of Lal Chowk, the main city square that was under siege, was destroyed in a fire that erupted during a gunbattle between rebels and security forces.
The last such attack in the city was staged by two militants on a paramilitary camp in October 2007. The two gunmen were eventually killed while three soldiers were wounded.
Joginder Singh, owner of another hotel in Lal Chowk, said the latest assault “was a nightmarish experience.”
“For the whole night heavy fighting was on and I and my staff were not able to come out. We thought we will die any moment,” said Singh, adding that one of his employees was injured Thursday morning by a stray bullet.
The police chief said there were intelligence reports that militants may increase strikes in the state.
“There are inputs in that regard. We are taking measures,” Khuda said, noting that there was “desperation” among insurgents to launch attacks after last year's fall in violence.
Police estimate there are some 700 militants active in the region, down from thousands in early 1990s when the uprising was at its peak.
Unrest in Indian Kashmir has left more than 47,000 people dead since the insurgency started two decades ago, according to official figures. AGENCIES