SRINAGAR (AFP) – Unidentified gunmen shot dead five migrant labourers in Indian-administered Kashmir on Tuesday, police said, in the bloodiest incident since New Delhi moved to strip the region of its autonomy.
The killings in southern Kulgam district, some 70 kilometres (43 miles) south of the main city Srinagar, came as India allowed a group of mostly far-right European Union parliamentarians to visit the region where tensions have soared since New Delhi began a clampdown on August 5.
A police official told AFP an unknown number of gunmen, believed to be rebels, barged into an accommodation rented by the six labourers late Tuesday and shot one of them dead on the spot.
They later took five others out of the residence and shot them with automatic rifles some distance from the building, killing four and wounding one.
“He is critical and undergoing treatment at a hospital,” a local police official said of the wounded labourer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another top police official said the victims were from the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, and that additional government forces were rushed to the area to track the attackers.
No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but police in the past have accused militants of targeting non-locals in a campaign allegedly aimed at driving them from the region.
A non-local truck driver was shot dead on Monday by gunmen while he was ferrying apples in the Himalayan valley’s southern region.
Five truck drivers and businessmen from other Indian states, who were associated with valley’s vital apple trade, have been killed in recent weeks.
New Delhi in August stripped the disputed region of its decades-old semi-autonomous status, which barred non-residents from buying land and taking government jobs.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with most residents demanding either independence or a merger with Pakistan.
The region has been in armed rebellion for the past 30 years, with New Delhi accusing Pakistan of training and arming scores of militant groups active in the area.
Before stripping its autonomy, India sent tens of thousands of additional troops to join a 500,000-strong force in the region and imposed a weeks-long security and communication lockdown.
Authorities also ordered thousands of tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave and arranged flights to take them elsewhere.
But tens of thousands of labourers who migrate to Kashmir every summer were left on their own.
Many departed due to the curfew, but others stayed, planning to leave as usual at the start of winter.
In the weeks since, landline telephone service and half of the region’s eight million cellphone lines have been restored, but internet remains cut off.
New Delhi, which has barred opposition politicians and a United States senator from visiting the valley since the clampdown, agreed to let nearly 30 EU lawmakers visit Kashmir.
Authorities have claimed that things have gradually returned to normal, but many residents, supported by militants, refuse to go to work, crippling the region that’s home to more than seven million people.