SRINAGAR: After months of hiding in the thick forests of Kashmir, the 20-year-old came back to where he once belonged -- only to find death lying in wait.
Sameer Ahmed Bhat, alias Sameer Tiger, the Hizbul Mujahideen's main recruiter, was gunned down today in Pulwama district's Drabgam, the village he called home, officials said.
Bhat, who was also known as "Abbasi" and "Faisal", met his end in the village after a six-hour gunbattle around 2.15 pm, they said.
The morning began with security forces, acting on a tip-off that militants were holed up inside a house, cordoning the area.
Around noon, security personnel, who were fighting stone pelting from the civilians, fired heavily at the house, causing an explosion, officials said.
About an hour later, the first militant, identified as Aaquib Mushtaq, was killed.
He was a local resident belonging to Rajpora area of Pulwama.
Shortly after, Bhat, who is alleged to have carried out several political and civilian killings in Pulwama area, was gunned down, the officials added.
He hit the national limelight in November 2017 as the long-haired youth with piercing eyes looking directly into the camera posing with an American M4 carbine in an orchard somewhere in south Kashmir, triggering a debate on how the US-made weapon came to be in the Valley.
The photograph was circulated widely on social media.
The man who terrorised the entire Kashmir Valley started out as a chronic stone pelter, officials said.
The Class 8 dropout emerged as another poster boy for the Hizbul Mujahideen after the death of Burhan Wani in July 2016.
Three months before that, Bhat was picked up by the Jammu and Kashmir police in March 2016 after he was caught pelting stones on security personnel.
He was just 18 years old at the time.
He was then counselled by police for nearly two weeks and let off with a condition that he would continue with his studies.
Instead, one day, not very long after, his parents approached the Drabgam police station and registered a missing report about their son, officials recounted.
Bhat had fled into the jungles of adjoining Tral and joined the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group besides extending help to other terror outfits.
According to senior police officials, Bhat persuaded about 80 people to join the militancy movement in south Kashmir and repeatedly managed to escape the police dragnet -- until now.
After Burhan Wani's death, videos of a bearded, long-haired Bhat appeared on various social networking sites in a bid to entice Kashmiri youths to become militants.
He is also alleged to have abducted small time political workers and police informers, torture them and record their agony.
Bhat would then release the films on social networking sites to scare people.