Gunmen dressed as cricketers kill five police in Kashmir

Militants disguised as cricketers killed five paramilitary police in an ambush in the main city of Indian Kashmir Wednesday, officials said, in the deadliest attack for nearly five years.

Two gunmen from the local pro-Pakistan group Hizbul Mujahideen, which claimed the attack, were shot dead after the assault on a playing field in the Bemina district of Srinagar that is home to a police school and barracks.

A senior police officer, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the extremists pretended to be joining children for a game of cricket before taking out automatic weapons from a bag and throwing a grenade.

"They first mixed up with the children playing cricket," said the officer, who was not authorised to speak to the media.

Four civilians were also injured, said a police statement.

The Kashmir News Network (KNS), a Srinagar-based news agency, reported receiving a call from a Hizbul Mujahideen spokesman who claimed the "guerilla attack" and said others would follow.

Indian Home Secretary R.K. Singh told reporters that up to four men might have been involved and the dead gunmen appeared "not local but from across the border" in Pakistan.

Wednesday's deaths marked the deadliest single day for Indian security forces since July 2008 when a landmine killed nine soldiers on a bus on the outskirts of Srinagar.

The Himalayan region, where a 20-year anti-India insurgency has waned in recent years, has been tense since the execution in February of a local separatist over a deadly 2001 attack on the national parliament in Delhi.

Mohammed Afzal Guru was convicted over the attack, but he retained widespread support in Muslim-majority Kashmir where many doubted his guilt.

Much of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed in full by both, has since been put under curfew repeatedly while protests and strikes have disrupted daily life.

Separatists called a strike on Wednesday and a 24-year-old man taking part in a protest to demand the return of Guru's body to Kashmir was shot dead by police in Srinagar, a source at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences hospital told AFP.

Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had argued recently that the government should withdraw emergency laws that give security forces in Kashmir near-complete legal immunity.

The attack will likely undermine his campaign, which he sees as necessary to defuse local resentment about human rights abuses and heavy-handed policing by the hundreds of thousands of troops in the region.

Attacks in Srinagar have become rare in recent years with violence across the region at its lowest level since the insurgency began in 1989, boosting the vital local tourism industry.

More than 47,000 people have died in the fighting by an official count while local rights groups estimate up to 70,000 have lost their lives.

The Hizbul Mujahideen, one of the biggest militant groups locally, fights for the transfer of Muslim-majority Indian Kashmir to Pakistan.

Violence in the region has its roots in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 when the Hindu leader of Kashmir opted for his mostly Muslim subjects to join secular India instead of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The region is now split between the two countries along a UN-monitored line of control, but both sides claim it in full and have fought two wars over its control.

The last major militant attack in Srinagar was in January 2010 when two militants from another pro-Pakistan militant group opened fire in the city centre and took refuge in a hotel.

Both were killed, as were a local policeman and a bystander.

Last October, gunmen opened fired on a popular hotel, killing a bellboy.

In May 2004, 28 Indian troopers and their relatives were killed in a blast carried out by Hizbul militants in southern Kashmir.