INTELLIGENCE AND police services have warned that the terrorists responsible for killing three people in Monday morning’s attack on a road-construction crew near Akhnoor, the first cross-Line of Control strike in the New Year, could carry out further strikes on civilian or military installations around the nearby city of Jammu, government sources told The Indian Express.
The 1.30 am strike, preceded by Research and Analysis Wing warnings issued last week, sparked off searches by multiple Army and police units that were continuing as darkness fell. “It’s like they have disappeared into the mist,” said an officer familiar with the operation.
Intelligence officials in New Delhi said the failure to locate the terrorists could also mean they had gone back the way they came, across the LoC. “A two-way crossing of the LoC after a fire-exchange would obviously suggest there are some very serious issues with security, which need to be addressed,” said a senior government officer.
Army sources said the terrorists entered the first barracks inside the General Reserve Engineering Force detachment stationed at Battal — a hamlet outside the village of Jourian, scene of one of the major tank battles of the 1965 war, and perched on a strategically key axis on the LoC. The terrorists opened fire on the four men inside the barracks, and then set fire to equipment, said sources.
The casualties, Army officials said, would have been substantially higher, had ten other workers housed there, all local residents, not still been away on their weekend break.
“A vehicle had reversed into the gate of the barracks complex last week, destroying it completely. There was no guard posted there, either,” said an official.
In a second barracks some metres away, ten other men survived by locking themselves inside the building. “We heard the terrorists shouting abuses in Punjabi against India for more than half an hour, as they broke open the locks on adjoining buildings,” police sources quoted one of them as saying.
Police identified those killed as Ramesh Topno, from Jharkhand, and Salman Khan and Abdul Aziz, both from Uttar Pradesh. A fourth man, Uttar Pradesh resident Abdul Aziz, sustained gunshot injuries. All four were employed on daily wages, said sources in the J&K government.
Following the exchange of fire, local residents told The Indian Express that a grenade explosion was heard outside Battal near a spring where troops fill water, before the terrorists disappeared into the woods behind the village.
Local military units, Army sources said, responded to the exchange of fire early, with troops from a company of the Madras Regiment, stationed some 500 metres away, calling in support from their parent unit and elements of an Engineering detachment opening fire in the direction of the terrorists.
Defence Ministry public relations officer Manish Mehta said the Army had “cordoned off the entire area” following the attack, blocking routes of exit and entry.
“It’s possible that this early response led the attackers to leave the scene quickly,” said a military officer familiar with the operation, noting that the terrorists had left three hand grenades, four loaded magazines of ammunition and a bottle filled with a liquid suspected to be the incendiary trinitroglycerine.
Government sources said that military units had been advised to be on high alert following a Research and Analysis Wing alert issued last week, warning of an infiltration attempt involving the Jaish-e-Muhammad, to be launched across the LoC from the region near the Pakistani city of Sialkot, west of Jammu.
RAW had issued similar alerts before the terrorist attacks on the IAF base in Pathankot and the XVI Corps Headquarters Nagrota, both involving the Jaish-e-Muhammad — and both proved accurate.
Low visibility along the LoC in the Akhnoor sector, cut across by the Chenab river and overlain by marshes, would have made infiltration relatively easy during the last several days, said a military source stationed in the region.
There is also no clarity, so far, on why the terrorists picked a militarily-insignificant target. There are several high-profile military installations in the immediate vicinity, including the 191 Brigade Headquarters, some 5 km away, while Jammu city is only a short drive away.
“It is possible that the attack was intended to send a message rather than inflict heavy casualties,” said an intelligence officer. “The idea may have been to show that the Pakistan Army will keep up pressure along the LoC, irrespective of the change of guard at its helm and threats from India.”
General Bipin Rawat, India’s new Army chief, had in a recent interview, had appeared to suggest New Delhi might authorise further cross-LoC attacks if terrorists in Pakistan “continue to disrupt the situation on our side of the Line of Control”.
“The demonstration of the surgical strike was just one such means. We are working on other such methodologies,” he had said.