Army on Tuesday shot dead two youth in cold-blood in north Kashmir's Handwara town after protests erupted over "molestation" of a school girl by a soldier there. Several people were injured in clashes over the killings that evoked widespread condemnation and a state-wide shutdown call by separatists on Wednesday.
The slain youth were identified as Iqbal Farooq Pir (21) son of Farooq Ahmad of Shalpora Drugmulla Kupwara and Naeem Qadir Bhat (22) son of Ghulam Qadir of Herpora Handwara.
Medical Superintendent of District Hospital Handwara, Dr Rouf said Iqbal had received bullets in face while Naeem was hit by bullets in his abdomen. "Iqbal had died on spot while Naeem succumbed on way to the hospital," he told Greater Kashmir.
Dr Rouf said the District Hospital treated over 19 injured persons. "They have been hit by shells and more injured are being brought to hospital," he said.
Late on Tuesday evening, a medical officer at District Hospital said a youth identified as Reyaz Ahmad Shiekh of Galoora Handwara was hit by a bullet in chest and was referred to a Srinagar hospital in a critical condition. Another youth Bashir Ahmad Lone (23) of Handwara had leg injury and was also referred to Srinagar, the Medical Officer said.
He said a woman named Raja Bagum wife of Abdul Jabbar of Langate Handwara had bullet injury in head and was also referred to Srinagar.
The killings took place barely a week after Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP government took the oath of office on April 4.
Eyewitness said a 12th class girl student of Girls Higher Secondary School Handwara entered the washroom located opposite to an Army bunker at Handwara Chowk. The bunker is manned by soldiers of Army's 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) with their base at Bhagatpora, Handwara.
They said as the girl entered the washroom, a soldier of 21 RR followed her and tried to molest her. However, the girl raised hue and cry and caught the attention of people nearby who instantly held massive anti-Army protests and demanded arrest of the soldier. The protestors were chanting anti-Army and anti-government slogans.
In the meantime, a group of eyewitnesses said, a heavy contingent of police arrived at the spot and opened fire in the air to disperse the protesters.
"While police was doing this, the soldiers who were commanded by a Major–also known as 'Town Commander'—opened fire on protestors in which Iqbal received bullets in face and died on spot, while Naeem succumbed to his injuries on way to the district hospital."
While heavy clashes were going on, the girl was taken to police station Handwara. "She told us that the soldier tried to molest her in the washroom," a police official, who was among officials who recorded her statement, told Greater Kashmir.
Soon after the killings, violent protests erupted in several areas in Handwara, resulting in injuries to at least three dozen people, witnesses said.
Thousands of people that included women and children assembled to denounce the killings by Army and also the molestation bid.
To disperse the protestors, police opened fire in the air and lobbed dozens of tear-gas shells.
Eyewitness said the protestors, while chanting anti-Army slogans, held soldiers hostage inside their bunker and tried to set it ablaze. However, police foiled the bid and rescued the army men.
Eyewitness said police opened fire in air for hours together to disperse the protestors who however didn't relent.
"We are trying to control the situation. We are busy," Deputy Inspector General of Police, North Kashmir, Uttam Chand, told Greater Kashmir at 6 pm.
Massive clashes were on in the town when this report was filed.
The body of Naeem is in police custody while that of Iqbal was handed over to his family, a police official said.
He said additional forces were deployed in Handwara to "control the situation" while senior civil and police officials are in the town "to monitor things."
Late in the evening, police said the protesters set ablaze a bunker of army while some shops also caught fire. "We are trying to douse the flames," Chand told Greater Kashmir later. "By and large, the situation has been brought under control."
Reports said police blocked most exit and entry points to Handwara town "to stop further protests."
A police spokesman in a statement over Handwara killings, claimed: "Today afternoon an alleged incident of misbehavior with/molestation of a girl by an army man took place in Handwara town. Within minutes, public in large numbers gathered there and attacked the army bunker in HandwaraChowk. They assaulted the personnel deployed there, ransacked the bunker and attempted to set fire to the bunker etc."
"In retaliation the security forces deployed used force to disperse the violent rampaging mob. In the process two individuals Muhammad Iqbal R/O Bomhama, Kupwara and NaeemQadirBhat S/O GhulamQadirBhat R/O BandayMohalla, Handwara, sustained fire-arm injuries. They were evacuated to hospital where they, unfortunately, succumbed to their injuries. J&K Police deeply regrets the loss of lives."
A criminal case has been registered in Police Station Handwara and investigation launched to ascertain the facts, the spokesman said.
Iqbal—son of a mason—was working as runner at Prince Photostat shop in Handwara. Naeem, besides being a brilliant student, was an ace cricketer and selected for All-India level coaching camp for cricket three years ago, reports said.
Naeem had shown extra-ordinary performance in the state-level Under-19 cricket competition.
Naaeem, who played for "Star Eleven" Handwara, is recalled by his friends as a talented batsman whose presence in the team would scare bowlers in the opponent teams. Bhat's elder brother is a Jammu and Kashmir policeman.
Several photographs of Naeem at various cricketing events, including a net session with Jammu and Kashmir's star all-rounder ParvezRasool, were being circulated on social networking sites soon after his killing by Army.
In one picture, Bhat is seen shaking hands with a senior police officer before the start of a recent cricket tournament in the district.
"Naeem was crazy about cricket but his journey has been cut short," said Abdul Rashid Ahmad, a childhood friend of the slain youth.
'GUILTY WILL BE PUNISHED'
Expressing "tremendous grief" over the killing of two youth at Handwara, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said the forces personnel involved in "the incident" would be handed down exemplary punishment, an official spokesman said.
She said she has already taken up the matter with the Army.
"The Chief Minister talked to the GOC-in-C, Northern Command, Lt Gen D S Hooda, who informed her that the Army has already ordered an inquiry into the incident and tangible action will be taken once the probe is completed. Regarding the demand of the locals for shifting of the bunker from the area, the Army Commander assured the Chief Minister that the demand would be looked into," the spokesman claimed.
The Chief Minister said such tragic incidents have a huge negative impact on the efforts of the State Government and the political leadership aimed at consolidating the peace efforts in the State, the spokesman said.
"Mehbooba Mufti said the security forces must exercise maximum restraint and adhere to the Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) while dealing with the public protests as incidents of innocent killings cannot be tolerated. The Chief Minister has expressed solidarity with the families of the two youth," the spokesman added.
District Magistrate Kupwara Rajeev Ranjan ordered a magisterial probe into the civilian killings and asked ADC Handwara to complete the inquiry within 15 days, officials said.
(With Shahid Poswal/Abid Bashir)