Four policemen were killed on Saturday in a bomb blast set off by suspected Islamist militants in Indian Kashmir, police and reports said, marking a deadly start to the new year in the restive valley. They were on patrol when the home-made device exploded in Sopore, some 50km from the main city of Srinagar. “[Home-made bomb] blast in Sopore. Four policemen martyred,” Jammu and Kashmir police said on Twitter. The bomb was planted by militants near a shop amid a strike called by separatists, the Press Trust of India and other local media said. Streets were deserted and shops and businesses closed when the massive blast struck. The town, famous for its apple orchards, is observing a shutdown on the 25th anniversary of a massacre when government forces killed at least 47 people after a paramilitary soldier died in a rebel attack. The town was already on high alert with hundreds of police and paramilitary soldiers patrolling the area in anticipation of anti-India protests and clashes. Police said at least half a dozen closed shops suffered extensive damage in the blast that was remotely detonated. The Jash-e-Mohammed militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the English-language Greater Kashmir newspaper. Reinforcements of police and paramilitary soldiers rushed to seal off the area. The latest incident comes during a spike in violence in the disputed region which is claimed in full by India and Pakistan. Last week four Indian soldiers were killed in an attack by armed militants who stormed a paramilitary camp outside Srinagar. Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule over the subcontinent in 1947. Since 1989, rebel groups have been fighting roughly half a million Indian soldiers deployed in the territory, seeking independence for the former Himalayan kingdom or its merger with neighbouring Pakistan. Nearly 70,000 people – most of them civilians – have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown. Last year 206 suspected militants, 57 civilians and 78 Indian security forces personnel were killed, making it the deadliest year in a decade. New Delhi accuses Pakistan of sending militants across the disputed border in Kashmir to launch attacks on Indian forces. Islamabad denies the allegations, saying it only provides moral and diplomatic support to the Kashmiri struggle for the right to self-determination. Anti-India sentiment runs deep in the region, and most people support the rebels’ cause against Indian rule while also taking part in civilian street protests against Indian control.