Five killed in Indian Kashmir as violence spikes

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Disputed Kashmir

Map of disputed Kashmir

Two non-Kashmiris were shot dead by suspected militants and three alleged rebels were killed by security forces, police said Wednesday, the deadliest day in the Indian-administered Kashmir valley since New Delhi revoked its autonomy.

The Muslim-majority Himalayan region had been under a strict lockdown since August 5 amid fears of unrest after the Indian government controversially abolished its semi-autonomous status.

Ahead of the autonomy decision, the head of Kashmir's largest militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, Riyaz Naikoo, had warned that Indians in the territory would become legitimate targets if the valley's status were changed.

"Militants shot at two apple traders from Punjab -- Charanjeet and Sanjeev," a senior police official told AFP late Wednesday, adding that one of the men died from the incident in Shopian district.

The other trader was in a critical condition in hospital, police added.

In a separate shooting earlier Wednesday, suspected militants killed a migrant labourer in the southern Rohmo village of Pulwama district, police said.

The two men's deaths came a day after suspected militants killed a truck driver carrying apples, also in Shopian which is the valley's biggest apple-growing district. His vehicle was set ablaze.

Authorities blocked text messaging services after the driver's death.

New Delhi had just restored call and text services for mobile phones on Monday, following a 72-day communications blackout, although internet services remain blocked. Landlines were restored previously.

All three killed were not from Kashmir, which has been split between India and Pakistan since 1947 and has been the spark of two wars and numerous skirmishes.

New Delhi sent in tens of thousands of extra troops ahead of the autonomy move in what was already one of the world's most heavily militarised zones.

- Explosion, gunfire -

Authorities repeatedly said during the lockdown that Kashmir was mostly peaceful.

Since August 5, protests have broken out, several civilians have died and security forces killed several militants in gun battles.

Early Wednesday, soldiers surrounded a residential area near Bijbehara town about 45 kilometres (28 miles) south of the main city of Srinagar after receiving reports about three alleged anti-India rebels.

"Three militants who all appear to be locals were killed in the operation in an exchange of fire, which was started based on intelligence about their presence in a house," senior police officer Munir Khan told AFP.

Residents told AFP they were woken up by a loud explosion about 3:00 am local time, after which they heard gunfire that carried on intermittently for several hours.

Khan said their bodies were not retrieved from the house but that an automatic assault rifle and one pistol were found after the operation.

A witness told AFP via a mobile phone from the area that soldiers had blown up the house with explosives, sparking a fire that gutted the structure.

It was not clear if it was blown up before or after the gun fight.

An armed rebellion against Indian rule has raged in the valley since 1989, claiming tens of thousands of lives, mostly civilians.

The rebels have demanded independence or to join Pakistan which, like India, claims the region.