SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Two Indian air force commandos and two rebels were killed on Wednesday in a fierce gunbattle in the disputed region of Kashmir, officials said.
Soldiers began an anti-militant operation by cordoning off northern Hajin town on a tip that rebels were hiding in the area, said Col. Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army spokesman. He said the deaths occurred in the ensuing intense fighting.
It is the first time the Indian army has said that air force personnel were participating in ground combat against rebels in Kashmir.
Kalia said the two air force commandos "were operating with the army for operational experience and training."
In 1990, at least four air force officers were killed in an ambush by Kashmiri rebels, but they were not participating in any operation.
Street clashes erupted in Hajin shortly after the fighting ended as hundreds of residents demanded an end to Indian rule in Kashmir. Government forces fired tear gas and shotgun pellets to quell the rock-throwing protesters.
Protesters later marched in the town carrying the body of one of the dead militants. They chanted anti-India and pro-rebel slogans while women sang dirges.
Meanwhile, police said they have detained two Kashmiri policemen for allegedly supplying ammunition to rebels.
Police Director-General S.P. Vaid said the two detained officers are being questioned after ammunition was recovered from them.
After the outbreak of an anti-India armed rebellion in Kashmir in 1989, police, including local officers, initially fought against it. However, within a few years, most Kashmiri police abandoned the task and stayed at their posts and barracks after rebels began targeting their families. Dozens even joined the rebel ranks, rising to become militant commanders, including one former police constable who was killed in a gunbattle last year.
Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan each administer part of Kashmir, but both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebel groups demand that Kashmir be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir's mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels' cause while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown.