At least 4 killed as BSF men open fire on protesters in J&K town

FPBodies lie in Gool in Ramban district on Thursday
At least four people were killed and 44 injured after the Border Security Force (BSF) and Jammu and Kashmir Police fired at a mob that allegedly attacked a BSF post in Gool in Ramban district Thursday morning.

The mob was protesting against the alleged manhandling by BSF personnel of a local imam, followed by the reported desecration of the Holy Quran the previous night.

The deaths triggered huge protests across the Valley, and the government responded by blocking mobile Internet services, shutting down the Jammu-Srinagar highway, clamping curfew on Ramban and putting several separatist leaders under house arrest. Separatists have called a bandh in both Jammu and Kashmir on Friday, and announced protests spread over three days.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah condemned the incident and warned that "repeating mistakes" like firing on unarmed protesters would endanger peace in the state. In New Delhi, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said he "sincerely regretted" the loss of lives and offered his "deep condolences" to the families of the victims.

The J&K government has ordered a magisterial probe to establish the sequence of events leading up to the firing. The Centre has ordered an investigation separately.

Though the Ramban police control room confirmed four deaths, residents of the town said at least nine people had been killed. Mohammad Shafi, a local contractor, told The Indian Express over the phone from Gool that he had seen nine bodies at the scene of the firing.

A BSF personnel identified as Ramhari was said to be in critical condition after being shot in the stomach. Several of his colleagues were injured in the stone-throwing by the mob, BSF I-G (Jammu) Rajeev Krishna said. He said the BSF was "not a trigger-happy force", and had been compelled to fire after the mob tried to enter the post where a large cache of explosives and automatic weapons was stored.

According to the BSF, the J&K Police were the first to open fire on the mob, and the BSF fired only later and in "self-defence" after some 700 people attacked the armoury. A senior BSF officer said their small post had been pelted with at least 15,000 stones.

The BSF said tensions started some time after 9 pm on Wednesday after a patrol party at the Dharam checkpost asked one Mohammad Lateef, who is the imam of the local mosque, for a proof of identity. Lateef allegedly reacted aggressively, and "15-20 people" assembled. According to the BSF, the jawans, sensing trouble, then returned to their post.

However, "it is learnt that Lateef made a baseless and false allegation that the patrol party had desecrated the Quran and announced same thing on the loudspeaker from the mosque. Following this, around 400-500 persons gathered outside the BSF camp and started pelting stones," the BSF said in a statement.

But the BSF restrained itself, and the police succeeded in dispersing the mob around 3 am, the statement said.

"...Around 6.45 am, mob started to build up in big numbers and tried forcefully to enter the Dharam campus... The police fired 3-4 rounds which injured one BSF constable and three locals," the statement said.

According to I-G Krishna, the mob tried to loot the "extremely lethal" weapons. "They tried to break open the gates of the BOP when a combined team of local police and BSF was forced to fire at them around 9.30 am, when the second rounds of protests started," he said.

Among the dead was a teacher at the government higher secondary school, Manzoor Ahmed Shan, who was also the brother of local National Conference leader Dr Shamshad Shan. Police gave the names of the other three dead as Javed Iqbal Manhas, Abdul Lateef and Farooq Ahmad Baig.

As news of the firing spread, shops shut down in Srinagar and JKLF chairman Mohammad Yasin Malik came out on the streets to protest. He was arrested along with his supporters near Budshah Bridge.

Malik has called a bandh on Friday and asked people to converge at Lal Chowk after prayers. Hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani called for a three-day shutdown. Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq described the deaths as "cold blooded murder" of peaceful people.

Clashes broke out in Maisuma in Srinagar. Several areas in the Chenab Valley and towns along the Jammu-Srinagar highway saw violence. In Ramban, a number of government vehicles were set on fire, and the deputy commissioner's office was stoned. Police closed the Jawahar tunnel, leaving hundreds of vehicles stranded on the national highway.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said the killings were unacceptable. "It is unfortunate that inspite of costly lessons learnt in 2008 and 2010 some amongst us are determined to repeat past mistakes and use force against unarmed protesters. Such incidents risk throwing the entire peaceful atmosphere in jeopardy," Omar said.

"There is no justification or rationalization of this deplorable act. This shocking act warrants and demands the severest of condemnation in the strongest possible terms," he said.

Minister of State for Home Sajjad Kitchloo and the state DGP visited Gool and tried to pacify the residents.

Home Minister Shinde, who was monitoring the situation, said, "I sincerely regret the unfortunate incident... The loss of lives... is particularly saddening and I offer my deep condolences to the bereaved families. I have ordered an enquiry... I assure that any use of excessive force or irresponsible action shall be dealt with strictly."

(With Rahul Tripathi and Vijaita Singh in New Delhi)

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