Troops are guarding the streets of Srinagar in conflict-ridden Jammu and Kashmir state after a clash between alleged militants and security forces that claimed the lives of four people, including a commando.

Police said officer Kamal Kishore was killed in the six-hour exchange, along with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Mehraj-ud-Din Bangroo, his associate Faid Mushtaq Waza and a civilian, Rayees Ahmad. Two policemen and a paramilitary soldier were injured.

The clash began around midnight Wednesday when the Special Operations Group of the state police and the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force jointly carried out a cordon and search operation at a house in Fateh Kadal’s Syed Ali Akbar area after learning that it was sheltering members of the Islamic LeT extremist group.

A senior police officer told Al Jazeera that security forces quickly came under attack and fired into the house, which was eventually gutted.

“The two [killed] were militants and the third [Ahmad] was their accomplice who was also the son of the house owner,” he said. “He did not come out when the family came, so he was a part of them.”

Family members have denied Ahmad, 30, was a militant and said he was “used as a human shield by the forces”. His elderly mother told Asia Times that police forced their way into the house and seized her son. She said he was beaten before being taken away in a vehicle.

“We don’t know whether militants were there in our house or not. We heard the gunfire only in the morning. My son was probably beaten to death by the government forces,” she said, amid sobs. Ahmad ran a bakery shop outside the family house.

Elite commando’s last operation

Kishore, a 10-year veteran and one of the most experienced police  commandos, was ordered to take a specialist team into the three-story house and “flush out” militants to allow a final assault.    

“He was an elite tactical commando who would always hit the target with zero collateral damage and would return successful, unhurt …,” said a senior official with the police Special Operations Group. “We had banked on the same this time as well, but …

“He was always the first choice for ‘room intervention’, which is to sanitize rooms one-by-one at buildings where militants are hiding.”

The commando stormed into a room on the upper floor after sensing some movements, but luck didn’t favor him this time. Coming under  fire from militants hiding in the room, he was hit multiple times on the head and body, suffering fatal wounds. Kishore had been ordered in because the house could not sustain extensive shelling.

“Unlike some villages, it was a congested area and using shelling to raze the house, as mostly happens in villages, could mean more collateral damage — something which needed to be avoided lest the entire locality ends up in trouble,” said a police official.

After Kishore’s death the operation became more challenging for the police. “There’s a psychological impact when your best bet is lost. Even retrieving his body proved challenging,” said one commando.

Governor takes a harder line

Kishore’s body was taken to his native village in Reasi and thousands attended his last rites Thursday. Mourners were told he had always wanted to fight for his country until his last breath. “And this is what exactly happened. He died fighting for the country,” one said.

Recruited by the police in 2009, the 32-year-old Kishore had carried out more than a dozen highly sensitive anti-terrorism operations, which eliminated some of the top militant commanders in Kashmir.

State governor SP Malik hardened his stance after the clash, saying militants don’t have “much of a shelf life”, with more than 40 killed since he assumed charge in August; they should not expect bouquets if they fire bullets, he added. Only a few days earlier he had said that New Delhi wants to “kill militancy and not the militants”.

Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh said the operation at Fateh Kadal was a major success and that the deaths of the militants would “improve security environment” in the city.

With authorities wary of protests following the violence, hundreds of paramilitary troops were trucked in to guard streets and schools were closed. Some reports said mobile internet services were suspended.

Jammu and Kashmir Police have lost more than 1,600 officers in clashes with militants in the past 30-odd years of armed insurgency, with fighting intensifying in recent months. Already 40 policemen have lost their lives this year, compared with 33 in the whole of 2017.

In India as a whole, around 700 militants have been killed in the last four years, but recruitment by the militants is also rising: more than  300 have joined, increasing tensions with the government.