SRINAGAR, India — Thousands of Indian government forces cordoned off at least two dozen villages in southern Kashmir on Thursday while they hunted for separatist militants believed to be hiding in the area, but called off the operation after about 10 hours without finding any, police said.
They said rebels later ambushed and shot at an army patrol as it was returning from the operation in the Shopian area. The soldiers retaliated but the attackers fled from the area, police said.
A civilian driver hired by the army was killed in the ambush and at least two soldiers were reportedly injured.
Police said the operation, launched after a spate of rebel attacks and anti-India protests, was the biggest in recent years in the disputed Himalayan territory.
Indian soldiers, paramilitary forces and police searched house-to-house for militants believed hiding in Shopian, known for its vast apple orchards. Helicopters and drones hovered over the villages while ground forces stood guard at village entry points. Schools were closed early.
Villagers expressed surprise as soldiers directed them to assemble in central areas.
"We don't know what is going on," said Mohammed Subhan Mir, head of Darazpora village. "There are soldiers all around us, moving everywhere as if it is war."
Police said some residents resisted the search, and clashes erupted in at least two villages. No injuries were reported.
Authorities said they were trying to find militants as well as choke off support from a sympathetic public. Villagers have increasingly protected the rebels by hurling rocks and abuse at Indian troops when they enter their villages. At least five civilians have been killed by government forces during such clashes this year.
Locals said the soldiers were mainly trying to terrify the residents and damaged many homes while withdrawing from the villages.
Senior police officer S.P. Pani said the troops didn't find any militants.
"Still, it was a successful operation as we could sweep through so many villages with a bare minimum of local resistance."
Another officer who was part of the operation and spoke on customary condition of anonymity said the troops were lifting their siege of the Shopian villages and were shifting to the neighbouring Kulgam area.
Both Shopian and Kulgam have become militant hotbeds in the past year since Indian forces killed a popular rebel leader. The rebel's death triggered a massive surge in anti-India protests in the mostly Muslim region, and police say dozens of young people from these areas have joined the rebel ranks.
Last week, several videos showing about 30 militants with rifles marching through an apple orchard appeared on social media sites despite a ban imposed by Indian authorities on 22 such sites and applications. Police said they believed the militants were in Shopian, where several banks were also recently looted in attacks blamed on militants.
Meanwhile, students chanted pro-freedom slogans and threw rocks at government forces, who responded with tear gas in the northwestern town of Sopore, as students continued anti-India protests for a third week. At least 10 students were reported injured.
Young students in school uniforms have clashed increasingly with government forces across Indian-held Kashmir after troops raided a college in the southern town of Pulwama last month.
Rebel groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or merger with neighbouring Pakistan, which also claims the mountainous region. Nearly 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting and the ensuing Indian crackdown. India has accused Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, which Pakistan denies.
The nuclear-armed nations have fought two wars over their rival claims to the territory.
Rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian forces in recent years. However, public opposition to Indian rule remains deep and is now principally expressed through street protests marked by youths hurling stones at government forces.
Aijaz Hussain, The Associated Press