Indian Kashmir Fighting Escalates -
23 More Killed

(AFP) - Twenty-three people -- most of them civilians and Islamic rebels -- were killed in a sudden escalation of separatist-linked violence in Indian-administered Kashmir, police said Sunday.

Five Hindus were shot dead and three others critically injured Sunday when suspected Islamic separatist militants opened fire on a village in south Kashmir, police said.

"The militants entered their home and opened indiscriminate fire, killing five of the villagers instantly," a police spokesman said. "Three others were seriously injured."

The attack occurred at Balmakote village in Kashmir's Udhampur district, 200 (124 miles) north of India Kashmir's winter capital Jammu, he said.

In a separate incident, three village guards were killed by militants in northern Doda district overnight.

"The members of the Village Defence Committee were all Muslims. Three other guards were also injured when the militants started firing on them," the spokesman said.

In another incident in the restive region, Indian border guards backed by the army killed four rebels in a shootout in the central Kashmir district of Budgam, a spokesman for India's Border Security Force (BSF) said.

A civilian who strayed into the cross-fire was also killed.

"The encounter erupted once BSF personnel sealed off a hide-out in the district and asked the militants inside to surrender," he said.

The militants instead opened fire which was returned by the security forces, resulting in the death of the militants who belonged to Kashmir's dominant separatist group Hizbul Mujahedin.

"One of the slain militants was a commander," the BSF spokesman said, adding that a number of other suspects had been arrested and were being questioned.

Three AK-47 assault rifles and a radio receiver set were recovered from the hide-out.

Residents and Hizbul said two of the five dead men were civilians, one of them killed by troops after he stepped outside of his house.

Four Indian army soldiers were injured in the gunbattle, officials said.

In other incidents, an officer of the counter-insurgency police was killed and another injured in a militant ambush in southern Kashmir district of Pulwama, while the security forces shot dead four militants in the northern Kashmir districts of Kupwara and Baramulla.

In Kupwara a civilian was shot dead by suspected militants on Sunday, while two militants, a border guard and a civilian were killed elsewhere in Kashmir.

A civilian was injured in a landmine explosion at Hatlanga along the Line of Control -- the defacto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan -- in northern Uri sector.

An anti-India rebellion by Islamic militants since 1989 has claimed more than 35,000 lives.

Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, has been the cause of two of the three wars between the two nuclear-armed South Asian rivals.

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