A TOP Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, 27, who was a close associate of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, was among two militants killed in an encounter in Tral, in South Kashmir, on Saturday. The other militant has been identified as Faizaan Muzaffar, 15, who is reported to have dropped out of school to join the Hizbul Mujahideen in March this year. The news of Bhat’s death triggered protests and stone-pelting across the Valley. A protester was killed in Tral and over 60 others were injured as security forces fired bullets and pellets in several places in South Kashmir. The state government has snapped mobile Internet, re-banned social media sites, and imposed curfew in several parts of the Valley. The separatists have called for a complete shutdown for two days.
“It (Bhat’s killing) is a big success,” said Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police S P Vaid. “It was a joint operation carried out by J&K Police, Army and CRPF,” he said. According to sources, the encounter started on Friday night, after militants fired at an Army patrol at Saimoo village in Tral, a militant stronghold in Pulwama district of South Kashmir. Soon after the shootout, police and Army launched a cordon-and-search operation in the village.
Officials said that the militants, who were holed up in a building, opened fire at the security forces. By Saturday afternoon, Bhat and Muzaffar were killed. Another militant was reported to have escaped. However, according to some eyewitness reports, as the encounter ended and villagers rushed to the encounter site, they found two militants lying under the debris of the building and helped them to escape. One of the militants was reportedly injured.
Earlier in the day, the villagers tried to march to Saimoo village, but were stopped at Rathsuna, which is Bhat’s village. Bhat is reported to have joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in April 2015 — after Burhan Wani’s brother, Khalid Muzaffar, was reported to have been killed in an encounter. While participating in Muzaffar’s funeral procession in Tral, Bhat is reported to have snatched a rifle from a CRPF personnel guarding a bunker, after which he went underground.
Within a short period, Bhat gained Wani’s trust and became one of his close associates. While he wasn’t a top commander of the militant outfit, he was very popular among the youth, especially after his photographs with Wani went viral on social networking sites. Wani was killed on July 8 last year. Police sources said Bhat, who had a reward of Rs 10 lakh on his head, operated in and around Tral. According to these sources, Bhat worked as an “overground worker” for Wani for some time. Before joining militant ranks, Bhat was allegedly involved in a car theft in his area.
Muzzaffar, the other militant killed in today’s encounter, was a Class X student who is reported to have joined the Hizbul Mujahideen after a top militant, Aqib Moulvi, was killed on March 5. The news of Bhat’s death led to a shutdown across the Valley, with youth taking to the streets and throwing stones at security personnel. The state government ordered immediate closure of schools and colleges in Srinagar. Mobile internet was snapped and social media sites blocked on broadband internet barely 15 hours after the government lifted its earlier ban.
A 28-year-old protester, Aqib Rashid Dar, was killed and several others injured — most of them hit by pellets — in Tral. A health official told The Sunday Express that 20 people were injured in Tral — 17 were hit by pellets, and three by bullets. In Anantnag district, 17 people were injured, mostly by pellets. Health official said one of the injured, who was hit by a teargas shell on his head, is in a critical condition.
In Shopian, 15 protesters were injured. Protests were also reported from several places in Srinagar and North Kashmir, including Sopore and Kupwara.