SRINAGAR: Heavily armed militants killed 17 soldiers in a pre-dawn raid Sunday on an army base in Indian-administered Kashmir, the worst such attack for years in the disputed Himalayan region.
The rebels sneaked into the base near the town of Uri before lobbing grenades and opening fire with automatic rifles on the fleeing soldiers, an army officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Tents and other temporary shelters for the hundreds of soldiers stationed at the base near the de facto border with Pakistan caught fire in the raid, the army and the senior officer said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to punish those behind the “cowardly” and “despicable” attack that also left four militants dead and scores of soldiers injured.
No one has claimed responsibility, but India regularly accuses rebels based in Pakistan of moving across the heavily militarised border known as the Line of Control (LoC) to launch attacks on its forces.
“We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” Modi said in a series of tweets.
The encounter resulted in “heavy casualties. We salute the sacrifice of 17 soldiers who were martyred in the operation,” the army said in a statement.
The raid which started just before dawn was the worst such attack for many years in the territory, where an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
Rebels stormed an army camp in the Uri area in December 2014, killing 11 soldiers and police officers.
Soldiers are now searching the base, 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of the region’s main city of Srinagar, for any more militants, the statement said.
Twenty-eight injured soldiers have been airlifted to a military hospital in Srinagar, four of them in a critical condition, according to an army officer. Large numbers of soldiers are stationed at Uri after finishing their tour of duty in the disputed Muslim-majority region.
Indian Kashmir in the grip of deadly unrest that has lasted for more than two months. Protesting residents are clashing almost daily with security forces in the worst such violence since 2010.
At least 87 civilians have been killed and thousands injured in the protests against Indian rule, sparked by the killing of a popular rebel leader in a gunbattle with soldiers on July 8.
The government has been coming under growing pressure over the level of casualties during the protests and over the security forces’ use of shotguns loaded with pellets which can blind demonstrators.
Thousands of angry demonstrators defied a curfew on Saturday in Kashmir to attend the funeral of a schoolboy whose body was found riddled with pellets, sparking fresh clashes.
Kashmir has been divided between India and its arch-rival Pakistan since the two gained independence from British rule in 1947. Both claim the territory in full and have fought two of their three wars over the region.
On Sunday residents of Uri town saw smoke billowing from the nearby army base after dawn and heard continuous rounds of heavy gunfire, while army helicopters circled overhead.
The militants first attacked a front-line base close to the LoC with Pakistan, before moving onto the brigade headquarters at Uri, army spokesman Colonel S. D. Goswami said.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh was holding a high-level security meeting in New Delhi, according to reports, after earlier saying he was cancelling his planned trips to Russia and the United States.
In January militants launched an audacious attack on an Indian air force base in the northern state of Punjab that left seven soldiers dead.
India blamed that attack on a Pakistani-based militant group. It came days after Modi embarked on a landmark visit to Pakistan, raising hopes of improved ties.
Several rebel groups have since 1989 been fighting Indian troops in Kashmir, seeking independence for the region or its merger with Pakistan.
Soldiers have been deployed in Kashmir for decades and currently number around 500,000. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting.