SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir

The bodies of three Kashmiri civilians killed in a staged gunfight by Indian forces in July were exhumed and handed over to their families on Saturday, officials said.

The three men – Imtiyaz Ahmad, 21, Abrar Ahmad, 25, and Abrar Khatana, 18 – were shot dead in Amshipora village in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Shopian district on July 18, with authorities initially claiming that they were militants.

After two months of protests by their families, who said the victims were laborers with no connection to any militant outfits, the Indian military admitted its wrongdoing on Sept. 18.

In a statement, the army said the men were laborers from Rajouri, an area in Jammu region, and that its personnel had overstepped their authority by exceeding the powers vested under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Earlier this week, regional police chief Vijay Kumar confirmed that DNA tests had proven the victims’ identities and their bodies would be exhumed and handed over to their families.

Lingering questions

Despite the Sept. 29 arrest of two people on charges of “criminal conspiracy” in the case, questions still remain over the initial claims made by Indian forces.

In particular, the weapons and ammunitions said to have been found in the victims’ possession at the time of the “operation” remain a point of contention.

The official statement issued after the staged killings said that all “recovered materials have been taken into case records for further investigation and to probe their complicity in other terror crimes.”

The consequent admission of wrongdoing gives rise to questions over how the arms and ammunition were “recovered” from the laborers, with officials either unwilling or unable to provide a credible explanation.

Police chief Vijay Kumar was not available for comment despite repeated attempts by Anadolu Agency, while Amrit Pal Singh, senior superintendent of police for Shopian district, said he was busy in a meeting.

Disputed region

Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region, is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.

Since they were partitioned in 1947, New Delhi and Islamabad have fought three wars – in 1948, 1965, and 1971 – two of them over Kashmir.

Also, in Siachen glacier in northern Kashmir, Indian and Pakistani troops have fought intermittently since 1984. A cease-fire took effect in 2003.

Some Kashmiri groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against the Indian rule for independence, or for unification with neighboring Pakistan.

According to several human rights groups, thousands have been killed in the conflict since 1989.

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