MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan/SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - A Pakistan-based militant group has disowned a splinter faction suspected of a string of killings in Indian-occupied Kashmir, with the rebuke followed swiftly on Friday by a string of attacks on telecoms facilities in the state’s main city.
The escalating rivalry is fuelling concern that rogue insurgents could ratchet up tension between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. Both claim the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and have fought two of their three wars over it since becoming separate countries in 1947.
Hizbul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri separatist group whose leader, Syed Salahuddin, is based in Pakistan, said on Thursday it had expelled Abdul Qayoom Najar over his involvement in “gruesome murder” and the “character assassination of established pro-freedom leadership”.
Indian security forces say Najar leads a breakaway group called Lashkar-e-Islam that has perpetrated a series of attacks around Sopore, killing five people including telecoms vendors and former militants.
In an apparent escalation on Friday, three more attacks were carried out on telecoms facilities in the Muslim-majority state’s summer capital of Srinagar, one of them near the office of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
Sayeed, who leads the People’s Democratic Party that seeks self-rule, rules Jammu and Kashmir in an uneasy coalition with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
A senior police officer said one person had been injured in the attack near the chief minister’s office, which declined to comment.
Earlier, militants threw grenades inside two mobile phone shops in Srinagar, injuring one person.
Lashkar-e-Islam has warned people to stop working for telecommunications companies, saying that Indian security forces are using mobile phone services to target members of the group.
The decision to expel Najar was taken by Hizbul Mujahideen’s command council headed by Salahuddin, a 69-year-old Islamic preacher who turned to militancy in the late 1980s.
The bearded cleric is widely viewed as allied to hardline Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is 85.
“The report submitted by the inquiry commission has proved that Qayoom Najar, in an utter disregard of the Hizb leadership, violated the constitution of the outfit and carried out condemnable acts. Our constitution does not allow or permit such actions,” Salahuddin said in a statement.
Analysts say the emergence of a breakaway faction could mean that a new generation of Kashmiri militants is trying to force aside the ageing separatist leadership - inspired by jihadists elsewhere who have resorted to extreme violence and spread their message through social media.
Writing by Katharine Houreld and Douglas Busvine; Editing by Robert Birsel