SRINAGAR, India -- Four militants were killed in a gunbattle with government forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir, including two counterinsurgency police officers who defected to fight with rebels in the disputed region, police said Friday.
The fighting erupted late Thursday after police and soldiers cordoned off a village in southern Pulwama area on a tip that militants were hiding there. Residents said troops blasted a civilian home with explosives during the firefight, which continued into Friday morning.
The two policemen were missing since Thursday morning, when they did not report to work after the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, closing the fasting month of Ramadan. Police said the two had deserted with their rifles and joined the rebels.
As the news of the counterinsurgency operations spread, protests and clashes broke out with hundreds of people trying to get closer to the site of the fighting and save the trapped militants.
Government forces fired shotguns and tear gas to stop the stone-throwing protesters. No one was immediately reported injured in the clashes.
Rebels have been fighting Indian control in Kashmir since 1989.
Many residents of the region view the local police as tools of Indian government bent on suppressing widespread demands for the Muslim-majority region's independence or merger with neighboring Pakistan.
But still the state police force is one of the largest employers in Kashmir, a region with limited employment opportunities and an economy crippled by decades of conflict.
The discomfort Kashmiri police face in their work has existed to some extent since the late 1940s, when India and Pakistan won independence from the British empire and began fighting over rival claims to the Muslim-majority region.
Many of the police recruits in recent years have been the young men who have participated in civilian uprisings and have also fought pitched street battles with government forces, hurling stones and abuse, during anti-India protests. About a dozen policemen have fled with weapons to join rebels in the last two years.
When the armed insurgency erupted in 1989, police initially fought against it. Within a few years, as rebels began targeting their families, many abandoned the task and stayed at their posts and barracks. Some also began sympathizing with and supporting the rebel demands as the campaign morphed into a full-fledged rebellion backed with public support. In early years of the rebellion, dozens even joined the rebel ranks, rising to become militant commanders.
However, toward the mid-1990s, India established a counterinsurgency force within the police ranks, loathed by many in the region for alleged human rights violations.
About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.