In a first-of-its-kind search operation in more than a decade in the Valley, the Army, CRPF, BSF and police held a door-to-door hunt through the tightly packed Old City area of Baramulla on Tuesday, beginning before sunrise at 5 am and stopping only after 12 hours.
Early morning risers found the security cordon, including bullet-proof Casper vehicles, already in place when they stepped out to offer morning prayers. They were told to go back inside. Later, announcements were made from loudspeakers announcing the search and the crackdown. The security forces split up into small teams, each including Army, police and paramilitary men.
Baramulla SSP Imtiyaz Hussain Mir said that after two attacks on the Army in the town, the operation was inevitable. While the first, on August 17, at Khawaja Bagh had left two Armymen and a police driver dead, on October 3, militants had tried to sneak into the battalion headquaters of 49 Rashtriya Rifles at Stadium Colony, killing a BSF jawan and leaving a soldier injured.
Security agencies also wanted to send a message after Chinese flags were waved by protesters here last Friday.
“The security forces sanitised the area, searching over 700 houses,” the SSP said. “A large number of suspected hideouts were busted.”
The police as well as Army said they had seized a “large quantity of incriminating material” during the search, including petrol bombs, Chinese and Pakistani flags, “operation letter pads of Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba”, unauthorised mobile phones and “seditious anti-national publicity material”.
Mir said they had detained 44 people for questioning, including two foreign militants. “Some of the arrested people were released after initial investigation. Most of the suspects have been rounded up for terrorism-related crimes and providing logistical support to Pakistani terrorists of the Jaish-e- Mohammad.”
The Old City, with the Jhelum river running through it, is connected to the main town through five bridges. On the other side lies Civil Lines, housing government offices and major Army installations, including the office and residence of General Officer Commanding, 19 Infantry Division, that looks after the Line of Control from Gulmarg to Nowgam.
Known to be a separatist bastion, the Old City has been seeing constant protests since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Every Friday, it sees big processions, ending with police using teargas shells to disperse the crowds. While there have not been any civilian deaths in Baramulla in the past three months of protests, over a hundred have received pellet injuries. However, a spree of arrests in recent weeks had seen a scaling down of the protests.
Before the current round of protests, for eight years, Baramulla had not witnessed any major militant strike or attack. Officials admitted they had no inputs about militant presence, though several people from here have been detained since early this year over alleged Jaish-e-Mohammad links.
“For us, the raid was a reminder of the old days of militancy, when the Army used to conduct crackdowns in our localities and search our homes for militants,” said Rafiq Ahmad, a resident of Tawheed Gunj. “They came into our house in the afternoon and searched every room. We were asked to open even trunks and boxes. They climbed up to the attic.”
Ahmad said his family was told they were looking for “wanted stone-pelters”.
“In the past there have been small night raids to arrest wanted youths, but this time it was extensive and the whole town saw the crackdown,” said Abid Ahmad War, who lives in Faqerwani. Apart from stone-pelters, the forces were looking for youths declared proclaimed offenders who were involved in organising street protests, he said.
“The crackdown was launched to arrest leaders who have been in the forefront of protests. All the top leaders and prominent stone-pelters evaded arrest as they fled before the operation, but police arrested dozens of youth who were involved in some protests,’’ Suhail Ahmad, a resident of Gania Haman, said.
Bilal Ahmad Khan, whose house in Jamia locality was searched, said police and the Army were spreading the impression that militants are hiding in the town. “Ours is a peaceful town. Protests are happening everywhere in Kashmir and our area is not an exception.”
Following the operation, the Lashkar-e-Toiba issued a threat to Station House Officer, Baramulla, Khalid Ahmad.