The firing incident in Shopian that left six people, including two Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists, dead has triggered a controversy with the Army claiming that the four killed apart from the ultras were also linked with militancy and the state government maintaining that they were 'civilians'.
The incident took place in the Pahnoo area of Shopian in South Kashmir on Sunday night with the Army stating that its troops, who were on patrolling duty, were fired upon from occupants of two vehicles.
In retaliatory fire, four people, including a Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorist Amir Ahmed Malik, were killed.
Police recovered the body of another terrorist, identified as Ashiq Hussain Bhat of Lashkar-e-Tayiba, seven kilometres from Pahnoo. A body of a civilian -- Gowhar Ahmed Lone of Chitragam in Shopian -- was also recovered from another vehicle near the firing incident.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said she was deeply distressed by the killing of 'civilians' in 'crossfire'.
'Deeply distressed by more deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire in Shopian. My heartfelt condolences to the deceased's families,' Mehbooba said in a tweet.
Hours after the tweet from the chief minister, an Army spokesperson said all those killed in the shootout in Jammu and Kashmir's Shopian district were linked with militancy and the soldiers acted in self-defence.
Recounting the events of the shootout, the spokesperson said soldiers deployed at the mobile vehicle check post (MVCP) in Trenz-Pinjoora road near Pahnoo village were fired upon by occupants of two speeding vehicles.
The vehicles continued to move despite being signalled to stop by the troops. The soldiers flashed search lights on the approaching vehicles, but the occupants opened heavy fire from both the vehicles, the spokesperson said.
Troops, in self defence, responded and in the ensuing gun fight, one terrorist firing from one of the vehicles was hit and fell off the vehicle, the spokesperson said.
"The vehicle veered off the road towards the nala (stream) and the second vehicle sped off," he said.
"Three more bodies were found in the vehicle during the search. These individuals were accompanying the terrorist," he said.
At around 9 am on Monday, the body of another terrorist, identified as Bhat, was found from the apple orchards of Saidapora village. Bhat is also 'linked' with the same chain of events in Pahnoo village, he said.
Director General of state Police S P Vaid told reporters in Jammu that the troops retaliated after they were attacked and the bodies of two terrorists and four others were recovered.
Asked whether the deceased were overground workers, he said that is what the Army is saying.
"We will see what their affiliation was," Vaid said, adding that the matter was being probed.
Sepratists' call for a Kashmir bandh to protest the Shopian incident hit normal life in Kashmir and the state government had to order a shut down of all schools, colleges and other educational institutes till Wednesday. They were opening today after a two-month winter break.
The strike called by Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) saw public transport off the roads in most parts of the Valley, but some private vehicles and cabs were seen plying. Train services from Baramulla to Banihal have been suspended as a precautionary measure.
Authorities imposed restrictions in areas falling under seven police stations of the downtown city as a precautionary measure, officials said.
Main opposition party National Conference demanded a probe into the firing incident in Shopian and said the killings cannot be justified by labelling the deceased as overground workers of militant groups (OGWs).
"We are deeply shocked and grieved at the continued and unabated bloodshed in Kashmir. The Shopian killings cannot be justified with an arbitrary, unproven pronouncement of the youth being OGWs," a spokesperson of the National Conference said.
He said the circumstances leading to killings in last night's shootout in Shopian should be probed and the report be made public.
State Congress also demanded a probe into the firing incident. In a statement, the J&K Pradesh Congress Committee described the killings as painful and said the people were not satisfied with the Army's version.
Communist Party of India-Marxist described the killing of 'civilians' as 'highly deplorable'.
"Whatever is the excuse given by the forces in the latest incident, killing unarmed and uninvolved civilians, it has no justification. Losing precious human lives is most unfortunate,” senior CPI-M leader M Y Tarigami said in a statement in Srinagar.
Ruling People's Democratic Party MLA from Shopian Mohammad Yousuf Bhat said civilian killings cannot be justified under any circumstances and they can 'vitiate the peaceful atmosphere'.
"No circumstances can justify these civilian killings which can further the tendency to vitiate the peaceful atmosphere," he said.
IMAGE: Locals stand around the vehicle that was hit during a shoot-out at Pahoo in Shopian district of south Kashmir on Monday. Four youth and a militant were killed in the firing incident. Photograph: PTI Photo