SRINAGAR, India, Sept 18: Suspected rebels using guns and grenades sneaked into a crucial army base in Indian-controlled Kashmir early Sunday and killed at least 17 soldiers in the deadliest attack on a military base in the disputed Himalayan region in recent years, the army said.
Four rebels were killed as the soldiers returned gunfire to the attackers in the surprise assault before dawn on the base close to the highly militarized Line of Control dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Loud explosions were heard and several barracks caught fire in the initial hours of the attack. Afterward military helicopters hovered over the base as the army conducted what they described as "mopping up" operations.
The casualties were high because a large number of soldiers were turning over the base to new units and were stationed in tents and temporary shelters that caught fire in the attack, the army said in a statement. The base in the town of Uri, west of Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, houses the Indian army's brigade headquarters in the region along the de facto border.
Several wounded soldiers have been airlifted to the army's main hospital in Srinagar. It wasn't immediately clear if the four dead rebels were the only attackers.
India's Home Minister Rajnath Singh has called an emergency meeting of top defense officials later Sunday.
The attack came as Kashmir is in middle of the largest anti-India protests in recent years since the killing July 8 of a popular rebel commander by Indian troops. A sweeping military crackdown and near-constant curfew have followed.
Protesters throwing rocks have clashed with troops firing live ammunition and shotgun pellets, and more than 80 people have been killed.
Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan in its entirety, and most people in the Indian-controlled portion favor independence or a merger with Pakistan. A militant uprising and subsequent army crackdown since 1989 have killed more than 68,000 people.
India accuses Pakistan of training the militants in its territory then helping them to infiltrate into the Indian side. Islamabad denies the charge, saying it only gives political and diplomatic support to the rebels.
During the recent violence, India's military has had to halt its operations against militants in towns and villages because Kashmiri civilians have fiercely thwarted their operations by hurling rocks at the troops trying to go after the rebels in neighborhoods. However, several suspected militants have been killed along the de facto border.
Last week, four militants were killed in fighting after police and soldiers intercepted them before they attacked a military base in Poonch town, close to the Line of Control. A policeman was also killed in the two-day gunbattle.
The last major attack on an Indian military installation was in January when six gunmen entered an air force base in the town of Pathankot in the state of Punjab. The rebels managed to paralyze the massive base for nearly four days, killing seven soldiers. That base also is close to India's border with archrival Pakistan.
In December 2014, eight army soldiers and three policemen were killed when militants stormed an artillery base in Kashmir's Uri region. Six rebels were killed in the fierce fighting.