In a serious blow to the moderate voice in the separatist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference, its senior leader Abdul Gani Lone was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Srinagar on Tuesday evening, a day ahead of the visit of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Kashmir valley.
One of Lone's gunmen Mushtaq Ahmed was also killed and another injured when the assailants in police uniform opened fire during a rally to mark the 12th death anniversary of former Mirwaiz of Kashmir Maulvi Mohammad Farooq, father of senior Hurriyat leader Umar Farooq, at Idgah ground in old Srinagar city.
Seventy-year-old Lone was rushed to the Soura Medical Institute where he was declared 'brought dead'.
The assailants also lobbed a grenade which failed to explode, official sources said.
At least seven people were injured in the attack, which took place as the ceremony was about to end at 6.15 pm (IST).
Hurriyat Chairman Abdul Gani Bhat, who was present at the rally, said he was escorting Lone at the conclusion of the ceremony, but missed him due to pressure of crowds.
Shortly thereafter, he said, he heard gunshots and later realised that Lone had been shot at along with his gunmen.
Some other persons were also injured in the shootout. Lone is survived by wife, two sons and a daughter.
His one son is married to the daughter of Pakistan-based Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Amanullah Khan. Lone's killing comes on the eve of Vajpayee's visit to the valley to take stock of the ground situation including at the borders and ahead of October assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir.
Lone's body was later brought to his Rawalpura residence where hundreds of people had assembled.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
A founder executive committee member of the 23-party Hurriyat Conference, Lone had been a critic of foreign mercenaries and had indicated desire for holding talks with the Centre for resolution of the Kashmir issue.
Lone had on different occasions earned the disfavour of the militant groups. For instance he was one of the few people to oppose the presence of the foreign militants in Kashmir and had asked them to leave the valley.
He had also taken a stand against the use of mosques by militants.
When last year six militants had holed up inside a mosque at Shangus in Anantnag district, he had prominently voiced his concern.
A moderate among separatist Hurriyat Conference leaders, Lone was under attack from hardliners for his stand that violence was no solution to the Kashmir problem.
He took the stand along with another moderate leader Mirwaiz Umer Farooq in a controversial meeting with other Kashmiri leaders at Sharjah recently.
A man of conviction, Lone was never afraid to be a loner and virtually single-handedly conducted a mass awareness campaign over the Kashmir issue by holding dialogue in different parts of the country last year.
Born in 1932 in Haral village of Baramulla district, Lone did his BA and B Ed and later secured a degree in Law from Aligarh Muslim University in 1967.
He was active in students' union politics and after leaving the university joined the Congress in northern Kashmir.
He also enrolled himself as an advocate of the Jammu and Kashmir high court. He subsequently became Director of Jammu and Kashmir State Cooperative Bank, Land Development Bank and Senior Vice President of Jammu and Kashmir Cooperative Union.
Lone was elected to the legislative assembly in 1967 and became a member of its privilege committee.
He was appointed a deputy minister in the ministry of G M Sadiq in 1970 and held the portfolios of irrigation, law and cooperative.
He was re-elected to the assembly in 1972 with a thumping margin from Handwara and was elevated as a minister of state for tourism, health and education in the government headed by Syed Mir Qasim.
Lone resigned from the ministry in protest against corruption and joined Janata Party. He was one of the two party candidates who weathered the onslaught of National Conference and were elected to the assembly in 1977.
He then formed his own J&K People's Conference in 1977. This was the only separatist organisation registered with the Election Commission till 1996.
He joined the secessionist Hurriyat Conference at its inception in 1993. Lone was both anti-India and anti-Pakistan and he stood for the third option of an independent Kashmir.
Lone had earlier been attacked by militants a number of times.
Among the dastardly attacks on Lone's life was the one on the night of November 1, 2001 at his residence in Rawalpura, on the outskirts of Srinagar.
Recently, on April 1, 2002, members of the Shiv Sena had roughed him up in a Jammu hotel where he was addressing a press conference, demanding the release of arrested JKLF chief and Hurriyat leader Yasin Malik.
Lone, who was suffering from a heart ailment, gave precedence to the political struggle over militancy for the resolution of the Kashmir tangle.
PTI with inputs from Basharat Peer, Onkar Singh and Sheela Bhatt in Delhi and Mukhtar Ahmad in Srinagar
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