The commander of the militant Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) group was shot dead along with three other militants during an Indian anti-terrorism operation in Kashmir on Wednesday, local authorities said.

Riyaz Naikoo, leader of the biggest separatist group in the disputed Himalayan region, was branded a terrorist by Jammu and Kashmir police, with a bounty of almost $16,000 on his head, according to local reports.

Local authorities said he was linked to almost a dozen terrorism-related cases, including playing a key role in using social media to recruit for the group, as well as allegedly being involved in the killing of special officers.

“He was trapped in a house, and early today a gun battle took place during which he and his associate were killed,” Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar told Reuters. Naikoo’s death is seen as “a major success for the troops in Kashmir,” according to Kumar.

Two other militants were killed in a shootout nearby at the same time, he added, bringing the total number of separatist fighters killed in the raid to four.

Following the operation, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan posted messages on his official Twitter account saying that “indigenous Kashmiri resistance against Indian occupation is a direct consequence of India’s oppression and brutalization of Kashmiris.” 

The Himalayan region has been a disputed territory between India and Pakistan for over 60 years, with some separatists pushing for total independence and others seeking to move away from Indian control and instead join with Pakistan. The area is split into two districts – one under Pakistan’s control, the other under India.  

New Delhi revoked Kashmir’s special status in 2019, retracting its already limited autonomy and introducing a raft of strict security measures which remain in place. The move led to a marked increase in tensions with neighboring Pakistan, including some military skirmishes along the border.  

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