Following attacks by militants on policemen and banking facilities in J&K, the Army, security forces and police launched a massive “cordon and combing” operation in south Kashmir’s Shopian district on Thursday. A senior official told The Indian Express that an operation “of this magnitude has not been undertaken in Kashmir in the last 15 years”.
In the evening, however, a vehicle carrying soldiers of 62 Rashtriya Rifles, who were involved in the operation, were attacked by militants near the Imam Sahib area, leading to the death of a civilian driver and injuries to four soldiers.
Officials said the Hizbul Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for the attack. The driver who was killed has been identified as Nazir Ahmad, a resident of Kachdoora village in Shopian.
In Delhi, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat told reporters that the combing operation was being carried out to bring the situation in the Valley under control. “The combing operation is going on as some banks were looted and some policemen have been killed. It has been launched to ensure that the situation is brought under control. These operations are carried out regularly,” he said.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior Army official said, “A cordon operation of this magnitude has not been undertaken in Kashmir in the last 15 years… The purpose of the operation is to exert pressure on militants and force them to move out of their comfort zone. The ravines and orchards around the Rambi Ara river (in Shopian) provide ideal hideouts for militants… they will not be able to congregate and move in large groups now.”
Sources said the operation involved nearly 4,000 personnel, which included four battalions of Rashtriya Rifles, eight companies of CRPF, and five platoons of J&K police, including 30 women constables, and the Indian Reserve Police.
Officials said the operation started in the early hours of Wednesday when soldiers and security personnel, using Mine Protected Vehicles (MPVs) and Bullet Proof Rakshaks, moved into 20 villages in Shopian district and laid a cordon around an area of 10kmx10km.
Local residents said house-to-house searches were conducted in the villages of Sugan, Turkwangam, Heff and Shirmal, from where many youngsters are suspected to have joined militant ranks. Some residents reported seeing helicopters and drones over the area.
Sources said these villages fall at the centre of Yaripura, Pulwama and Kulgam from where instances of rifle-snatching from police were reported last week.
Local residents said that while the operation was underway, protesters clashed with police at Sugan, Drazpora, Malduor and Turkwangam, with four persons said to have been injured, including one with a pellet injury on his forehead. They also alleged that four persons were arrested during the security operation.
Sources said that police and Army had received information about the presence of militants in the area, including some involved in the attack on the J&K Bank cash van in which five policemen and two private guards were killed on Monday.
They said that the militant Umar Majeed, said to have been involved in the attack, and his associates were using hideouts in the villages where the operation was conducted.
Residents said the forces also conducted search operations in apple orchards — Shopian is south Kashmir’s apple belt — following reports that militants had shot several videos in there and shared them on social media.
”Soldiers came to our village around midnight. In the morning, dozens of soldiers and policemen entered my house and searched every room. They conducted similar searches in other houses of our village,’’ said Gulzar Ahmad, from Sugan.
Abdul Gaffar Sheikh, from Heff, said, “The Army and policemen took us out of our houses and conducted searches. They inquired about the presence of militants and left the village late in the afternoon.’’
Mohammad Akram Khan, a resident of Shirmal, said they had not seen such an operation in the last two decades. “This is first time that such big crackdown was launched in our area,’’ he said.
J&K Police DIG (South Kashmir) S P Pani said the operation began in the morning and ended in the afternoon. “We had information about the presence of militants in the area so the villages were searched thoroughly. Apart from protests at two places, the operation ended successfully.’’
The return of “area domination and sweep” operations — including the cordoning of a number of villages — by such a large body of troops is throwback to the 1990s, when such actions by the Army were common. Following reports that these operations were causing discomfort to the local population, the Army switched to specific intelligence-based operations undertaken by small teams.
There was no confirmation from the Army if Thursday’s operation reflected a shift in its operational philosophy in Kashmir. But sources said that the Army is focused on asserting its physical control over the area.
The senior Army official said the operation had been planned over a month ago, but police and CRPF were not available due to the Anantnag Lok Sabha bypoll scheduled for May 25. “Once the bypoll was cancelled, police and the CRPF have moved from ‘law and order mode’ to ‘CT (counter-terrorist) mode’. It has little to do with any immediate provocation,” said the official.
According to Army estimates, there are 100 active militants in south Kashmir, including around 80 local residents who have joined militancy in the last two years.
A senior officer, who was part of Thursday’s operation, said, “This is a signal to militants that they will be taken to task.’’