NEW DELHI — A gun battle between the Indian Army and militants in Kashmir left at least seven people dead, Indian officials said on Sunday, and the violence threatened to heighten tensions in the disputed region.
The army said soldiers were hunting down militants fighting Indian rule in the remote town of Handwara, in northern Kashmir, close to the border with Pakistan, when the militants took civilians hostage on Saturday afternoon. The claim could not be independently verified.
As fighting worsened, the army said, five Indian security personnel — including a colonel, a major and a Kashmiri police officer — were killed. India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, said on Sunday on Twitter that the loss was deeply disturbing.
“We will never forget their bravery and sacrifice,” he said.
Kashmir — caught in a territorial dispute between Hindu-majority India, which controls much of the territory, and Muslim-majority Pakistan — has endured brutal conflict for decades. A violent secession movement that started in the late 1980s saw many guerrilla fighters crossing the border from Pakistan into India. In turn, India increased its military presence in the region to try to quell the uprising.
In recent weeks, tensions have risen between India and Pakistan along the rugged and mountainous Line of Control, which divides the Kashmir region into two parts. Videos shot late last month in northern Kashmir depicted soldiers firing artillery shells across the watch towers and bunkers that dot foothills populated by villages.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said India was seeking to divert attention from its human rights violations in Kashmir by raising false allegations of “infiltration attempts.” The ministry has not denied that Indian soldiers were killed over the weekend.
“Pakistan’s policy and approach is clear as it does not allow use of its soil for any activity against anyone,” a statement by the ministry said.
Life had started to rebound a bit before India imposed a nationwide lockdown in March to fight the coronavirus, plunging Kashmir into fresh turmoil. Police officers blocked roads with coils of glistening concertina wire. Shops closed once again, and thousands of Kashmiris lost their jobs.
But despite the lockdown, firefights and skirmishes in Kashmir have not stopped. At least 50 militants and 20 soldiers have been killed this year, according to data collected by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a research project that tracks the conflict.
The gun battle raged late Saturday for hours in Handwara, where Indian Army and police officers found themselves trapped between houses as they came under fire from militants, witnesses said.
A shopkeeper, Mushtaq Ahmad Wagee, 61, who lives near the site of the gun battle, said his family could not sleep as the firing between the holed up militants and forces continued and giant plumes of smoke filled the sky.
“In the end, someone dies every day in Kashmir,” he said. “This bloodshed should stop now.”