Five militants including a former scholar were killed in a gunfight at Kellam village in Devsar area of southern Kulgam district on Sunday, triggering massive clashes in which at least 13 civilians were wounded.
A police official said that acting on a "specific input", the army's 9 Rashtriya Rifles, Jammu and Kashmir police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel cordoned off Kellam in the wee hours.
As soon as the forces zeroed in on a suspected house, the hiding militants opened fire, triggered a gunfight, he said.
Army's Srinagar-based spokesman colonel Rajesh Kalia confirmed the killing of five militants.
"Weapons and warlike stores were recovered from the encounter spot," he said.
Locals at Kellam said they heard indiscriminate firing early Sunday morning which continued till late afternoon.
"The intense firing caused panic in the area, with people remaining confined to their homes," they said.
The slain militants were identified as Waseem Bashir Rather of AshmujiKulgam; ZahidParray of Gopalpora, DH PoraKulgam; IdreesBhat of ArwaniBijbehara in Anantnag district; AaqibNazir of ZongalPoraKulgam and ParvaizBhat of NuksanPora, QaimohKulgam.
Rather, a source said, had done his M.Phil and had applied for Ph.D in linguistics before joining militancy on May 23, 2018.
As per the police, the slain militants were associated with HizbulMujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Soon after the gunfight ended, forces recovered five bodies and five AK-47 rifles from the encounter site, officials said.
Superintendent of police KulgamHarmeet Singh said militants holed up inside a residential house were offered a chance to surrender which they refused and they were later killed "one by one".
"They denied the surrender offer and within next six to eight hours all of them were killed. The gunfight ended without any collateral damage," Singh said.
Soon after the gun-battle started, scores of youth tried to break the cordon and march towards the gunfight site in a bid to help the trapped militants escape, a witness said.
The youth clashed with the forces personnel who used pellets and teargas shells to disperse them, he said.
"As the protestors refused to budge, a dozen persons sustained injuries in the forces' action and they were evacuated to nearest hospitals," said a photojournalist near the spot. The injured were evacuated to community health center Kellam, where from eight of them were referred to district hospital Kulgam, where they were treated and discharged, an official said.
Five more people with minor injuries were treated locally, he said.
"Among the injured, two people were hit with pellets in their eyes and were referred to Srinagar's SMHS hospital for specialised treatment," said a health official.
As per reports, a freelance photojournalist Shah Junaid from Anantnag was also thrashed by people near the gunfight site when someone shouted that the journalist had a CCTV fitted over his DSLR camera.
As the protests intensified, the forces tried to finish the gunfight quickly and blasted the house where the militants were trapped, a group of local residents said.
The bodies of militants were handed over to their families on Sunday evening.
Amid massive pro-freedom sloganeering, the bodies reached their native villages in Kulgam and Anantnag, where people shouted pro-freedom and pro-Islam slogans and continued to do so till late evening. A report said Wasim was laid to rest in the evening. It couldn't be immediately ascertained whether four other militants were laid to rest or not, though reports said some of them would be laid to rest on Monday morning.
Meanwhile, authorities snapped internet service in Kulgam district as a "precautionary measure."
"Based on a credible input about presence of militants in Kellam area of Devsar in District Kulgam, a cordon and search operation was launched Sunday in the wee hours jointly by police and security forces in the area. As the searches were going on, the search party was fired upon by the militants. The fire was retaliated leading to a gunfight. In the ensuing encounter, five militants were killed and the bodies were retrieved from the site of encounter," a police spokesman said in a statement.
"Incriminating material including arms and ammunition was recovered from the site of encounter. Police have registered a case and initiated investigation in the matter. Citizens are requested not to venture inside encounter zone since such an area can prove dangerous due to stray explosive materials. People are requested to cooperate with police till the area is completely sanitised and cleared of all the explosive materials if any," the statement read.
The slain militants, the police said, were "wanted by the law for their complicity in a series of crimes including attack on security establishments and civilian atrocities".
"Waseem, Aqib and Parvaiz were involved in the killings of a civilian Muhammad Iqbal Kawaq, a resident of Kilam and local army soldier Mukhtar Ahmad son of Ghulam Hassan Malik, a resident of Shurat, for which cases stand registered in concerned police stations," the statement read. "This group of militants was also involved in various grenade attack incidents across Anantnag and Kulgam districts for which cases stand registered in concerned police stations". "Pertinently no collateral damage took place during the encounter. Bodies of the killed militants were handed over to their families after completion of medico-legal formalities," the statement read.