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Civilians killed in axe-gun mix-up

Srinagar, Aug. 12: A civilian and a teenaged girl accompanying him were shot dead before daybreak today by troops who mistook the axe on his shoulder to be a militant’s weapon.

Soldiers of the 33 Rashtriya Rifles had been lying in wait for militants in Drugmulla village of north Kashmir when they spotted the two shadowy figures making their way through the woods. The duo fled when asked to stop, forcing the soldiers to open fire.

Ghulam Mohammad Tantray, 45, and Rubina, 15, died on the spot. A police officer said they had gone to cut grass, as they did in the wee hours every day.

The army has regretted the killings. Col Hemant Juneja, spokesperson of 15 Corps, said “the shootout was the result of mistaken identity”.

He said the patrol team had specific information about militant movement in Kupwara district and had laid an ambush. They were misled when they noticed the man carrying “something like a weapon” and fired because the duo “fled when challenged”.

Moreover, the man was not carrying a lantern, which has been made mandatory for civilians moving around in border areas, he said.

The army will provide adequate compensation to their families, he added. An internal inquiry has been ordered.

When news broke, over 1,500 angry villagers took to the streets in Drugmulla, 80 km north of Srinagar, raising anti-government slogans. Women beat their chests as they wailed.

The villagers, who came upon the bullet-riddled bodies in the morning, took out a procession and staged a sit-in near Drugmulla market alleging that the troops had resorted to “unprovoked firing”.

Kupwara DM Abdul Majid Khanday assured them a probe would be held. “An FIR has been lodged. We will provide them compensation,” he said over the telephone.

The deaths came on a day Srinagar and other major towns in the Valley were shut down by a general strike called to protest the killing of a youth early this week.

Most government offices, educational institutions, banks and markets in the Valley were closed. The state traders’ body, backed by separatist groups, had called the strike.

In another incident, a civilian was found dead on the roof of his house in Bawan Watsar village, also in Kupwara. A stray bullet from an encounter in the forests is believed to have killed him in sleep.

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