Indian troops kill popular Kashmiri rebel leader

Manan Wani gained a following after abandoning university to take up arms for separatist cause

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard by the site of a gunbattle at Panzan, about 35 kilometers south of Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. At least two militants were trapped in a mosque after troops laid a siege around it in the village, police said. As the siege continued, villagers tried to march towards the mosque in solidarity with the rebels, leading to clashes between stone-throwing protesters and government forces who deployed tear smoke shells and pellets. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
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Indian forces on Thursday killed a Kashmir militant leader who became a folk hero in the troubled territory after giving up geology research at an Indian university to become a militant, officials said.

Manan Wani, 26, and an associate were killed in a gunfight that lasted more than 10 hours after security forces were tipped off that he was hiding in a residential area, officials said on condition of anonymity.

"Wani's family have identified the body and now legal formalities are under way," a police officer said.

Another police officer said Wani and his associate escaped a first siege but were trapped in a village in the northern area of Handwara, where they were killed.

The killing of Wani raised fears of an escalation in anti-India protests similar to what happened in 2016 after another popular militant was killed by Indian security forces.

Wani quit a doctoral programme at Aligarh University in January to join Hizbul Mujahideen, the biggest group fighting for Kashmir's merger with Pakistan.

He rose to prominence after circulating two open letters in the Indian media explaining why he took up arms.

"We are soldiers we don't fight to die, but to win, we don't feel dignity in death but we do feel dignity in fighting [Indian] occupation, its military might, its oppression, its tyranny, its collaborators and most of all its ego," Wani wrote in his first letter in July.

He died not far from his home in the highly militarised frontier area of Kupwara.

The killing of another popular rebel leader Burhan Wani - no relation - by security forces in July 2016 sparked fierce protests in Indian Kashmir that left more than 100 dead.

Top separatist leaders opposed to India's rule in Kashmir called for a general strike on Friday over Wani's killing.

"Deeply pained that we lost a budding intellectual and writer like him, fighting for the cause of self-determination," Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, one of the three top separatist leaders of the Joint Resistance Leadership, said in a tweet

The JRL has called for a complete shutdown in Kashmir "to pay homage" to Wani, he said.

Since 1989, Hizbul Mujahideen and other groups have been fighting hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers deployed in the territory that is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by the arch rivals.

Tens of thousands, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting between separatist rebels and government forces.

This year at least 180 militants, 60 civilians and 74 security forces have been killed in dozens of clashes.

New Delhi regularly accuses Pakistan of supporting attacks on its forces in the region divided by a heavily militarised zone. Islamabad says it only provides diplomatic support to the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.