New Delhi/Srinagar: A soldier and three terrorists were killed in a fierce gunbattle, while seven stone-pelters were also killed in the crossfire when they tried to protect the terrorists and provide them a safe passage by pelting stones at the security forces during an encounter in Pulwama district early Saturday morning.

The security personnel apparently used pellet guns first to disperse the stone-pelters, but the situation worsened when the locals came in between them and the retreating terrorists, forcing them to use firearms. The incident occurred during a midnight operation in an orchard at Sirnoo village of South Kashmir when the security forces surrounded the area after receiving a tip-off about a group of terrorists holed up there.

According to police and hospital sources, dozens of injured stone-pelters are being treated in different city hospitals, while the condition of eight of them is critical. Doctors attending on those undergoing treatment in SMHS and SKIMS hospitals said that many of the injured have received pellet injuries also. Protests broke out in the Valley as the news spread to other areas.

The Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL), an alliance of top separatist leaders of Kashmir, has given a shutdown call for three days to mourn the deaths. Both political and separatist leaders have blamed Governor Satya Pal Malik for the incident.

As a precautionary measure, the authorities have suspended internet services across Kashmir and have also suspended Banihal-Baramulla rail service immediately after the incident. A senior police officer told The Sunday Guardian that they have taken all possible measures, including deployment of additional forces at all the sensitive places, to stop violence.

Restrictions will also be imposed here in the city on Sunday in view of the proposed protests, the official added.

For the first time in the recent past, People’s Conference leader Sajjad Gani Lone said that the Governor’s administration needed to “seriously evaluate” the costs of such anti-militancy operations in Kashmir with diminishing returns. In a tweet, he said, “If there is even a remote chance of civilians getting killed during military operations, it is better to call off such operations.”

People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, “No probe enough to bring back the dead innocent civilians. South Kashmir has been reeling under fear for the last six months. This is what was expected from Gov rule? The admin has failed in securing civilian lives.”

In his tweet, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said: “Another blood-soaked weekend in Kashmir. Reports of many injured at the encounter site. What a horrible day!”

Separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq tweeted, “Bullets and pellets rain! As Govt of India has decided to kill Kashmiris through its #ArmedForces who control us. JRL and people will march towards Badami Bagh Army cantonment on Monday 17 Dec to ask GOI to kill all of us at one time rather than killing us daily.”

Other political leaders like Ghulam Hassan Mir also condemned the killings.