SEVEN PAKISTANI soldiers were reported killed in fighting with Indian troops on Sunday night after they were caught in the open during a brief exchange of mortar and machine-gun fire near Sunderbani in J&K’s Rajouri district, military sources told The Indian Express.
”Suspecting an effort by terrorists to penetrate the LoC, troops opened fire to preempt the threat. The Pakistani soldiers, who were killed, were probably outside their bunkers or on patrol,” said a senior officer of the Nagrota-based XVI corps.
New Delhi offered no official comment on the incident but the Pakistan Army confirmed the deaths that mark the heaviest casualties recorded in a single exchange of fire since India’s surgical strikes in September.
General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s outgoing Army chief, on Monday attended funeral prayers for the seven soldiers, identified as Havaldar Zafar Husain, Havaldar Ibrar Ahmad Awan, Lance Naik Muhammad Shoukat, Lance Naik Muhammad Haleem, and sepoys Parvaiz Akram, Muhammad Ilyas and Muhammad Tanweer.
The deaths come just days after the killing of 17 Sikh Regiment’s Sepoy Mandeep Singh ignited fury within the Indian Army. Singh’s mutilated body was discovered after he got lost during a patrol near the LoC ahead of Kala Post, one of the several Indian forward positions in Machil sector.
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement that “by creating tension at LoC, the Indian forces are uselessly trying to divert the attention from the Kashmir issue”.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry in Islamabad summoned Gautam Bambawale, India’s High Commissioner, to convey its concerns over the killing, and what it called India’s “unprovoked” actions on the LoC.
Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistan Army’s public relations wing, offered no details on the circumstances of the soldiers’ deaths, other than saying they had “embraced shahadat (martyrdom) at the LoC in the Bhimber sector”.
Intelligence sources, incidentally, told The Indian Express that there were no reports of an impending infiltration attempt in Sunderbani, a small town southeast of Pakistan’s Bhimber and facing Pallanwalla town across the LoC, which lies on an important infiltration axis into Rajouri, with mountain streams, notably the Sukhtao Nala, offering cover to infiltrating jihadist groups.
In Pakistan, the killings of the soldiers are being viewed as retaliation for Singh’s killing. Singh was part of a patrol moving to block infiltration efforts near Dana, Khan Basti and Tantray Basti, an arc of villages near the mouth of a mountain stream that leads up from the Neelum river to the dense forests of Kalaroos, in northern Kashmir.
Both armies are known to have mounted harsh retaliatory actions against the killings of soldiers, in some cases even conducting retaliatory beheadings.
In one gruesome August 2011 incident, Pakistan complained that three soldiers, including an officer, were beheaded in an Indian raid on a post in the Sharda sector, across the Neelum river valley in Kel. The raid is believed to have been carried out to retaliate against the decapitation of two Indian soldiers near Karnah by Pakistani special forces.
Ever since the surgical strikes, cross-LoC exchanges of fire, in single digits since January, have exceeded over 200, government figures accessed by The Indian Express show. Last year, less than 50 similar incidents were recorded, down from 250 in 2013, the highest since an unsigned ceasefire went into place on the LoC.
Heightened tensions on the LoC appear to have caused increasing concerns in Pakistan’s military establishment, with top officials repeatedly seeking to draw international attention to the situation.
Last week, Pakistan’s ISPR had complained that Indian troops fired “heavy artillery” in the Neelam valley to target civilians and carried out mortar strikes in the Kel sector — all regions involved in the surgical strikes.
Indian government sources admitted that the Army did conduct strikes against forward posts in the area after the killing of a soldier in sniper fire, but said no artillery was involved. “There were three infiltration attempts the previous night, and we believed a lesson needed to be dished out to the posts assisting them,” they said.
Sources said that Pakistan’s concerns stem, in part, from its military being too strained from other commitments to withstand significant pressure. Indian commanders have admitted to maintaining around 3,25,000 troops in J&K, including 80,000 for counter-terrorism operations. Leaving out likely numbers for logistics and administrative roles, that would mean India likely deploys some 2,00,000-2,25,000 troops along the LoC.
Pakistan, which does not need to employ troops for counter-infiltration purposes, only has the X corps to face India’s XV and XVI corps. The X corps’ 23 Division, with four brigades and two in reserve, the double-sized 12 Division with 7 Infantry Division, the 19 Division and the Force Commander Gilgit-Baltistan together command between 1,00,000-1,25,000 troops.
Although a significant escalation on the LoC would impose costs for India, by preventing the reconstruction of defences after the spring snow-melt and thus facilitating infiltration, it would also force Pakistan to move troops to the area, military sources told The Indian Express.
”For obvious reasons, that is a situation that they would like to avoid. They have got over 2,00,000 troops committed to counter-insurgency in their north-west, and have had to denude their anti-India offensive formations to that end. To beef up their defences in Kashmir, they will quite literally have to strip their defences on their eastern front, too,” said an official.