Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir early Friday exhumed the bodies of two civilians killed during a security operation, following demands by their families and outrage in the disputed territory.
Police said the men died in “crossfire” on Monday alongside a pair of suspected rebels during a shootout inside a commercial complex in Srinagar, the region’s main city.
Their families insisted they were civilians and accused security forces of murdering the two in “cold blood,” denying police claims that they were associated with militants.
The deaths sparked anger in the restive region, and the families demanded return of the bodies for a proper Islamic burial.
Hours after ordering a probe into the killings, authorities exhumed the two bodies from a remote graveyard where they were hurriedly interred in the middle of the night without their families present.
“The bodies will be handed over to the families soon,” a police official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Manoj Sinha, a New Delhi appointee serving as Indian Kashmir’s top administrator, said the government would take “suitable action” as soon as a report into the incident was completed.
The deaths of Mohammad Altaf Bhat and Mudasir Ahmed Gul came after more than 30 civilians have been killed this year in the territory.
Bhat owned the building where Monday’s shootout took place, while Gul was a tenant in the complex running a real estate business. Two suspected militants also died in the encounter.
The families prepared graves for the pair in their respective graveyards in Srinagar.
“We are told the bodies would be handed over after midnight for burial before dawn and no crowd should assemble,” a relative of Bhat told AFP, declining to be identified.
Police had raided a candlelight vigil staged by family members demanding the pair’s bodies be returned.
The sit-in protest had been underway since Wednesday morning, despite biting winter cold, but electricity was cut and several people were bundled into an armored vehicle.
“They harassed and beat us up and took us into a police station,” Abdul Majeed, Bhat’s brother, told AFP.
Those detained were later released.
Since last year, police in Kashmir have refused families access to the bodies of slain militant suspects or their associates, saying it helps stop what it calls the glorification of anti-India rebels, whose funerals were usually attended by thousands of people.
Pervez Imroz, a prominent human rights lawyer who has monitored violence in the restive territory for more than three decades, said the probe was meant to “deflate public anger.”
“We have seen numerous executive probes ordered here in the past, but perpetrators were never punished despite many indictments,” Imroz told AFP.
A faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference separatist group called on people in Kashmir to close their shops and businesses on Friday to protest the deaths.
Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since their independence in 1947.
The South Asian arch-rivals separately administer parts of the Himalayan region and each claim the territory in full.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed since an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted more than three decades ago.
Tensions have festered since 2019 when New Delhi canceled the region’s partial autonomy and brought it under direct rule.