By Fayaz Bukhari and Abu Arqam Naqash
SOPORE, India/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan June 17 (Reuters) - After years of sharply reduced political violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the gunning down of four men with links to militants has fanned fears of a new wave of bloodletting.
No group has claimed responsibility for the killings, but the police blame a breakaway faction of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest group in the region, which has been fighting for Kashmir's merger with neighbouring Pakistan.
"They have serious differences with ... other militant leadership over several issues," said Garib Dass, the chief of the police for northern Kashmir. "They feel that these people have damaged the movement and are targeting them."
The killings have raised fears militants are regrouping and this could be the start of a new period of unrest in Kashmir that has been the main flashpoint between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan.
The bloodshed comes after five telecom workers and vendors were shot by militants last month after claims cell phone towers were being used to target their members.
The murders have centred on the northern Kashmiri town of Sopore, about 30 miles (50 km) from the border, that has long endured militancy, violence and a heavy military presence.
In the last few days, India has deployed an additional 600 soldiers and police specialising in counterinsurgency operations to the area, police said.
Soldiers are conducting searches for suspected militants and have put up posters offering a million rupees ($15,600) for information that can lead to the arrest of two militant commanders who are said to have plotted the attacks.
Syed Salahuddin, supreme commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, denied any members of his group were behind the murders. He said that Sopore was a stronghold of Hizbul Mujahideen but that the area has a sizeable presence of renegades, a term for former militants who switched loyalties to India.
Salahuddin said they are close to identifying the renegades.
Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, said that a new generation of militants could be emerging who are trying to join militant groups or win backing from Pakistan by staging the killings.
"These youngsters are likely self-radicalised over the Internet and do not have necessary linkages to established terrorist formations for recruitment, and therefore seek to give positive proof of their commitment," he said.
For the last four days in Sopore, a town of almost half a million people, the roads have been deserted, and most of the shops and local businesses have closed.
"There is fear psychosis here," said Mohammad Ashraf, president of the Traders Federation of Sopore.
The attacks have come at a time of deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan. Both countries traded bitter verbal exchanges last week after India conducted a cross-border raid in Myanmar and a junior minister said it was a message to Pakistan that India will go after militants anywhere. ($1 = 64.1500 Indian rupees) (Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in New Delhi; Editing by Andrew MacAskill/Hugh Lawson)
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