SRINAGAR: The newly appointed chief of Lashkar-e-Toiba for Jammu and Kashmir is believed to have escaped from the site of an encounter in south Kashmir where two suspected militants, one of them wanted by NIA, were killed on Wednesday.

Search operations continued in half dozen villages of south Kashmir on Thursday following the encounter in a village near Awantipora which left LeT's Abu Okasha, who was wanted by National Investigation Agency in Udhampur attack, and another unidentified militant, also believed to be a foreigner, dead.

The gunfight erupted on Wednesday at around 3:30 pm at a plant nursery following a brief exchange of gunfire with troops of Rashtriya Rifles and J&K Police's SOG at Wandakhpora and Goripora villages. According to police sources, a group of about 10 militants had assembled near Awantipora for a meeting.

Officials said soon after the exchange of gunfire started in the area, residents of Goripora, Pohu, Pinglen, Malangpora, Bandarpora and Lelhar villages marched to the site of encounter. However, the police halted their movement and used teargas shells to disperse them.

Amid anti-India and pro-freedom slogans, a group of protesters, including women and children, gathered near the site of encounter to help the militants engaged in the gunfight and pelted stones at the security forces. A police bus on way to the encounter site also came under a rain of stones in adjoining Kakpora, leaving many cops wounded.

"After establishing contact with the militants, locals came out on the streets and started pelting stones at our forces which disrupted the operation. According to our inputs, LeT's Kashmir chief, Abu Dujana, was among those who managed to escape," a senior police officer, wishing anonymity, said.

Police said Dujana took over operational command of Lashkar in Jammu and Kashmir following the killing of Abu Qasim in Kulgam area of south Kashmir in October last year. Superintendent of Police, Awantipora, Shridhar Patil, said the bodies of two suspected militants were recovered from the encounter site.

Official said eight other militants managed to escape from the village after locals diverted the attention of forces engaged in the encounter. Witnesses said the villagers, mostly youths, pelted stones at the forces who had laid a cordon around the plant nursery where the fierce exchange of gunfire was going on.

As the gunfight was going on, several photojournalists were allegedly thrashed by paramilitary CRPF men and stopped from discharging their professional duties. “The CRPF men asked us to go away and when we protested, they beat us up,” Kamran Yusuf, a photojournalist with a Jammu-based daily, said.

The search operation was going on in the villages at the time of filing this report.

(File photograph by Basit Zargar: protests in Srinagar on a Friday, after prayers)