India troops kill top Kashmir militant linked to al-Qaida

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Government forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed a top militant commander linked to al-Qaida, officials said on Friday, as authorities restricted internet access and enforced a curfew to prevent anti-India protests.

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Zakir Musa was killed Thursday evening in a gunfight after police and soldiers launched a counterinsurgency operation in the southern Tral area, said Col. Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army spokesman.

Musa refused to surrender and fired grenades at the troops after they zeroed in on his hideout in a civilian home, police said.

Residents said troops destroyed the home using explosives, a common tactic by Indian forces in Kashmir.

Musa's killing triggered violent anti-India protests in many places. No one was immediately reported injured.

Authorities cut off the internet on mobile phones in a common tactic to make organizing anti-India protests difficult and discourage dissemination of protest videos. They also imposed a curfew across much of the Kashmir Valley, including in the main city of Srinagar, in anticipation of more protests and clashes, and ordered schools and colleges to remain closed.

Later Friday, thousands participated in Musa's funeral despite rains and the security lockdown.

Musa joined Kashmir's largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen, in 2013 after dropping out of his engineering course.

But in mid-2017, an al-Qaida linked propaganda network said he became the head of an affiliate militant group, Ansar Ghawzat-ul-Hind, with less than a dozen others.

Musa regularly issued audio messages mainly stressing that Kashmir's struggle was for Islamic cause and had nothing to do with nationalism, highlighting a shift in ideology among some rebels in the region where militants have mainly fought for either independence of Indian-controlled Kashmir or merger with Pakistan.

He instantly became a media sensation, particularly with New Delhi-based television news channels using him to showcase that Kashmiri struggle for self-rule was part of a global militant agenda. Previously, no global jihadi groups have openly operated in Kashmir, a territory divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both entirely.

All Kashmir rebel groups rejected Musa and his al-Qaida affiliate, some even calling him inimical to their cause.

Separatist leaders, who challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir, have repeatedly rejected the presence of outside groups, including al-Qaida, and have accused India of portraying the Kashmiri struggle as extremist.

Musa was a close aide of Burhan Wani, a charismatic Kashmiri rebel leader whose killing in 2016 triggered open defiance against Indian rule.

Wani's death and the resulting public fury brought the armed rebellion into the mainstream in Kashmir and revived a militant movement that had withered in recent years to only about 100 fighters in scattered rebel outfits.

Officials say since Wani's killing, hundreds of young men have joined rebel ranks, some of them after stealing weapons from soldiers and police. Wani's death also cemented a shift in public behavior, with people displaying anger at Indian rule openly and violently when troops raid villages to hunt rebels.

Rebel groups have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.