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Gun battle leaves top Kashmiri fighter dead

SRINAGAR: Troops in India-held Kashmir killed a top pro-independence fighter who “pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda”, officials said on Friday.

As the news of Zakir Musa’s martyrdom spread on Thursday night hundreds of protesters spilled out on the streets and clashed with Indian forces in many areas, including in the main city of Srinagar.

Authorities cut cellular internet services across the Kashmir valley and imposed a curfew in large parts of the disputed territory to stop the protests from spreading.

Musa, 25, was trapped alone late on Thursday evening by soldiers and counterinsurgency police inside a hideout near the southern town of Tral and asked to surrender, a top police official said.

“In return he fired a grenade followed by bullets and was later killed during the ensuing gun battle,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicating that the fighter preferred to lay down his life rather than be captured alive.

Musa announced in 2017 the creation of his group called Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind and reportedly declared his allegiance to Al Qaeda.

He dropped out of his engineering course in 2013 to join Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir’s largest group fighting Indian rule, and later became part of the group led by charismatic commander Burhan Wani. This group deftly used social media to recruit young men and openly challenged Indian rule over the disputed Himalayan region.

The martyrdom of Wani in 2016 sparked wide-scale protests across the territory that lasted months and left more than 100 civilians dead and thousands injured.

Musa later took Wani’s place, but in 2017 broke away from the group to form Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, which officials claim was an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Kashmir.

It threatened Kashmiri leaders opposed to Indian rule if they came in his way of fighting for a caliphate. Hizbul Mujahideen later dissociated with Musa, most of whose associates have since been martyred by Indian forces.

“Musa was left with just one or two associates,” the police officer said.

Armed Kashmiri groups, including Hizbul Mujahideen, have been fighting for decades some 500,000 Indian soldiers deployed in the territory New Delhi controls, seeking independence or a merger with Pakistan.

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