202

Thousands flock to funeral of 2 teenage Kashmir rebels

Indian soldiers stand guard near the site of a gun-battle in Mujagund area some 25 Kilometers (16 miles) from Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018. Indian troops killed three suspected rebels in the outskirts of disputed Kashmir's main city ending nearly 18-hour-long gunbattle, officials said Sunday. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Thousands of people in Indian-controlled Kashmir joined a funeral procession Monday for two teenage rebels who were killed over the weekend in a long gunbattle with Indian troops in the disputed region.

Villagers carried the teens’ bodies to a “martyr’s graveyard” in the northern town of Hajin, chanting slogans eulogizing anti-India militants and demanding an end to Indian rule over the Himalayan region. Funeral prayers were held at least three times, to accommodate the large number of people arriving from different places in the area.

According to police, the two friends, 14-year-old Mudasir Rashid Parray and 17-year-old Saqib Bilal Sheikh, joined the rebel ranks in late August. Police said Parray was the youngest rebel killed in the three decades of armed conflict in Kashmir, a territory divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.

“The two remained friends in life and in death,” said Azhar Ahmed, a local resident. “We’ve lost two lively boys in our neighborhood. Everyone’s eyes are moist. They lived and died for the same cause.”

The two teens and a militant commander were killed Sunday in fighting with government forces that lasted nearly 18 hours, triggering anti-India protests and clashes in the region that left at least five people injured. At least two counterinsurgency police officers and a soldier were wounded in the gunfight.

Police identified the slain insurgent commander as a Pakistani national who trained the two friends and recruited them into Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group New Delhi blames for a 2008 attack that left 166 people dead in India’s commercial capital of Mumbai.

Shortly after Monday’s burial, hundreds of people, mainly youths, chanted slogans including “Go India, go back” and “We want freedom” as they hit streets in Hajin and clashed with government troops.

Police and paramilitary soldiers fired shotgun pellets and tear gas to combat stone-throwing protesters. No one was immediately reported injured in the clashes.

Most Kashmiris support rebel demands that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. In recent years, mainly young Kashmiris have displayed open solidarity with the rebels and sought to protect them by engaging troops in street clashes during military operations.

Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Pakistan denies. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.

The two deaths, especially of Parray, triggered a debate among Kashmiri netizens, with some arguing that rebel groups should not permit the recruitment of young boys.

“We as a society, state and resistance have failed to provide a ray of hope for the new generation,” Mushtaq Ul-Haq Ahmad Sikander, a Kashmiri political commentator, wrote on Facebook.

Others highlighted the need to urgently resolve the Kashmir dispute.

“How can we simply sit back and generically imbibe the news of combatants and noncombatants killed and properties devastated,” Ather Zia, who teaches anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, wrote on Facebook. “The occupation that pushes our children into the mouth of death must die. This systemic violence meted on Kashmiri lives has to end.”

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.