7 combatants, 2 civilians killed in Kashmir fighting

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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Five rebels, two army soldiers and two civilians were killed Thursday during two gunbattles in disputed Kashmir that triggered anti-India protests and clashes, officials and residents said.

The first gunbattle broke out in a neighborhood in southern Pulwama town as police and soldiers scoured the area looking for militants, said Col. Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army spokesman. He said as troops began conducting searches, they came under heavy gunfire, leading to a clash that killed three militants and a soldier.

A civilian was also killed and his brother was wounded during the fighting, police said. Two soldiers were also injured.

Local residents said troops damaged one civilian home with explosives.

The fighting sparked protests and clashes as hundreds of residents tried to march to the site of the battle in solidarity with the rebels despite the security lockdown in the area.

Government forces fired shotgun pellets and tear gas at protesters, who threw stones at them. No one was immediately reported injured in the street clashes.

In the second gunbattle, also in southern Kashmir, government forces launched a search operation in a village near Shopian town following a tip that militants were hiding there, police said. As the troops surrounded a civilian house, militants reportedly came out while firing at them and tried to take refuge in a nearby apple orchard.

In the ensuing exchange of gunfire, two rebels, a civilian and a soldier were killed, police and residents said. Earlier, police had said three militants were killed. However, one of the slain people turned out to be a local resident, residents said. Police maintained that he was an "active associate" of the militants but acknowledged he was not an underground militant.

Meanwhile, the Joint Resistance Leadership, composed of three top separatist leaders who challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir, called for a protest strike on Friday, saying there has been no letup in the bloodshed even in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan "as civilians, armed youth or even Indian forces are getting killed."

"In one manner or the other, Kashmiris continue to pay the price of the unresolved Kashmir issue," they said in a statement. "Use of force against them continues unabated."

India and Pakistan each claim the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989.

Most Kashmiris support the rebels' demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.

About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.

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