MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Kashmiri militant commander on Saturday denounced his designation as a terrorist by the United States, vowing to continue his armed fight against Indian rule over its part of the divided Himalayan territory.
Syed Salahuddin called the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration “idiotic”, saying it was a gift to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was visiting Washington on Monday, the day Salahuddin was declared a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
“They cannot quote a single incident to prove that we are terrorists,” Salahuddin told a news conference in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani portion of Kashmir, where he has been based for some 25 years as leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest of the anti-Indian Kashmiri militant groups.
“This idiocy can neither weaken our courage, nor stop the freedom struggle and the target-oriented actions of freedom fighters,” he added, saying his fighters’ attacks were on legitimate military targets as opposed to civilians.
Gun-wielding Hizbul Mujahideen members wearing fatigues escorted his vehicle to the news conference venue.
Pakistan denies giving material help to Kashmiri separatists but reiterated earlier this week that it would continue to provide diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination.
India blames Pakistan for stoking the 28-year-old revolt in Muslim-majority Kashmir and has stepped up efforts to put pressure on Pakistan under Modi.
Security forces in Kashmir have been accused by activists and rights groups of killing up to 100 separatist protesters since new mass anti-India demonstrations broke out in September.
In Monday’s announcement, the U.S. State Department said that in September 2016 Salahuddin had threatened to train more Kashmiri suicide bombers and vowed to turn the Kashmir valley “into a graveyard for Indian forces”.
As a consequence of the designation, U.S. individuals are banned from engaging in financial transactions with Salahuddin and all his property in the United States is blocked.
Salahuddin, who is from Badgam town in Kashmir, was an Islamist politician who turned to militancy after he lost an election for the Kashmir legislative assembly in 1987, which he says was “massively rigged” by India.
Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Helen Popper