Four rebels, including Naikoo, were killed during India’s military operation in Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

Indian troops have killed four rebel fighters in gun battles in Indian-administered Kashmir, including the commander of the biggest separatist group fighting New Delhi in the disputed Himalayan region.

Hundreds of Indian soldiers launched an operation late on Tuesday after receiving intelligence that Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo was hiding in a village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

Authorities also disabled mobile internet across the Kashmir region early on Wednesday to prevent large crowds from gathering in the streets to mourn his killing.

“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 news agency on Wednesday.

Two rebels were killed in another gun battle nearby on Wednesday, Kumar added.

For decades, separatists have fought an armed conflict against Indian rule in Kashmir, wanting independence for the Himalayan region or to join Pakistan.

Kashmir is claimed in whole but ruled in part by both India and Pakistan.

Rebel commander

Naikoo, 35, joined the separatists in 2012, two years after about 100 people were killed by troops during a restive summer marked by protests and violence.

A former maths teacher with a bounty of 1.2 million rupees ($15,800) on his head, Naikoo was an aide to Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani who was killed in July 2016, leading to months of unrest.

Amid a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Indian troops have intensified operations in Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state that was split into two federally administered territories last August.

Since late March, Indian forces have killed 36 rebels while losing about 20 soldiers including a high-ranking army officer, according to official data.