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Two killed in fierce gunbattle in Srinagar

SRINAGAR (Reuters) - Troops shot dead two separatist militants on Thursday in a fierce nine-hour firefight on the outskirts of Srinagar, where popular protests against Indian rule have mounted in recent months.

A soldier takes his position during a gunbattle with suspected militants in Maloora on the outskirts of Srinagar October 21, 2010. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

It was the fourth such clash in the disputed Himalayan region in a week and comes amid fears of an escalation in rebel violence after a period of relative decline.

The spike in violence, security agencies suspect, may also signal a new rebel strategy to back popular street protests with increased militant attacks on Indian forces that they accuse of trying to put down the demonstrations with a heavy hand.

Police evacuated hundreds of residents immediately after a firefight erupted between troops and three members of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group in a populated area on outskirts of Srinagar, Himalayan region’s summer capital.

“We have been able to eliminate two militants and search for third body is going on,” Ashiq Hussain Bukhari, a senior police official told reporters.

The heavy exchange of fire forced children, women and other residents to abandon their homes and flee to safer areas.

The militant violence comes at a time when New Delhi is struggling to calm anti-India protests on Kashmir’s streets that have kept the region on the boil.

At least 110 people have been killed since June, mostly by police bullets, during the protests, biggest in two-decades.

The recent wave of street demonstrations subsided after New Delhi relaxed security in Srinagar, the summer capital, freed some 50 protesters, announced compensation for families of the dead and offered to talk to all political groups.

A separatist strike and security lock-down has dragged on for over four months in Kashmir, where thousands have been killed since an insurgency broke out in 1989.

Thousands of police and paramilitary personnel on Thursday enforced a curfew in many parts of Kashmir, preventing a planned march pro-freedom demonstration by separatists, police said.

Both India and Pakistan claim Muslim-majority Kashmir in full but rule it in part and have fought two wars over it since they won independence from Britain in 1947.

Reporting by Sheikh Mushtaq; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee