Police say three suspected rebel fighters were killed in India-administered Kashmir's main city, but the families of the slain men – two students and a carpenter – say they were killed in a staged gun battle.
Families of two teenage boys and a young man killed in India-administered Kashmir by Indian troops during an alleged firefight have denied they were rebels – a rare protest in the disputed Himalayan region.
Police said the trio were killed in a 20-hour gun battle on Wednesday in a house on the outskirts of the region's main city of Srinagar.
But parents of the students said they had been on their way to receive private tutoring in Srinagar.
Bashir Ahmad Ganai, the grandfather of 25-year-old Aijaz Ahmad Ganai, who was killed in the alleged gun battle in Srinagar, told reporters his grandson was not a rebel.
"He was a student. Why did they kill him?" he said at a protest by family members outside a police office.
"Yesterday at 10 in the morning, he had tea with me. We don't know where he was picked up from and later killed. What is going on in Kashmir?"
Athar Ahmad, 27, who was also shot dead, studied at Kashmir University and had left home on Tuesday to fill in an academic form, his sister Rifat Wani said.
"Please tell them to bring my son back or kill me, too. They murdered my son," Mushtaq Ahmad Wani, father of Athar Mushtaq, said.
The family of carpenter Zubair Ahmad also insisted he was innocent.
The exact ages of the three killed were not released.
Three "militants" who were killed in #HMT Srinagar gunfight today were civilians, they had left home yesterday to submit university form - Families. #StagedEncounter #Kashmir pic.twitter.com/Oir7a9rIAH— Ishfaq Reshi (@IshfaqReshi_) December 30, 2020
Stage gun battle?
"Repeated announcements were made to the hiding terrorists to lay down their illegal weapons and surrender," police said in a statement.
"Instead, the hiding terrorists fired continuously upon the searching party."
The case bears similarities to a July incident in which three labourers were killed, sparking an outcry in the region, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
The Indian army had claimed that those three men were killed in a gun battle in the village of Amshipora and that weapons were found on them.
But on Sunday, an Indian army officer and two associates were charged with planting weapons on the bodies to make it look as though they were militants.
READ MORE: Indian army 'planted weapons' on bodies of slain Kashmir civilians
Uncle of Athar Mushtaq Wani of #Pulwama wailing outside PCR. Family members said that the trio killed in HMT were civilians.— Hakeem Irfan (@HakeemIrfan) December 30, 2020
Police said that 2 of the 3 locals killed in HMT were not listed militants but hardcore OGWs & 3rd one may have joined militancy recently. #Kashmir pic.twitter.com/Eiffiskcha
Police firm on stance
It is, however, rare for families to immediately contest victims' allegiance to insurgent groups.
"Parents might not be knowing activities of their wards," Vijay Kumar, the Kashmir valley's top police official, said about the men killed on Wednesday, adding they were supporters of rebel groups and likely planning an attack.
One rifle and two pistols were recovered from the site of the gun battle, he said.
A spokesman for the Indian Army declined to comment, referring the matter to the police.
READ MORE: In pictures: What Kashmir is like a year after having its autonomy stripped
The only thing that is not fake is the loss and pain. #Srinagar #kashmir pic.twitter.com/qaBzCXNpWD— Suhail Naqshbandi (@hailsuhail) December 30, 2020
Thousands of civilians killed
Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan and both claim the mountain region in its entirety, fighting two wars over it.
Rebel groups have been fighting Indian soldiers since 1989, demanding independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan.
The fighting has killed tens of thousands of people – mostly civilians.
Since January, at least 180 rebel fighters have been killed by Indian troops and police, according to an AFP tally.
Rights groups say cash rewards given to Indian forces for killing alleged terrorists and emergency military laws help perpetuate rights violations. Authorities deny the claims.
Under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, Indian forces deployed in the region – more than 500,000 – cannot be tried in a civilian court unless New Delhi agrees.
No such permission has been granted in the last three decades, despite dozens of requests by police after investigations into actions by Indian forces.