Police investigating the killing of Lieutenant Ummer Fayaz, the 22-year-old officer of 2 Raj Rif shot dead at a family wedding in south Kashmir on Tuesday, have told The Indian Express that witnesses have said the killers were led by local Hizbul Mujahideen operative Abbas Ahmad Bhat who was wanted for two earlier homicides, including one of a local doctor. Bhat, the witnesses said, was accompanied by two local men, Ishfaq Ahmad Thokar and Ghias-ul-Islam Thokar.
Fayaz, police records show, was shot in the face and abdomen at point-blank range with an Insas 5.56 mm rifle which investigators believe was among several looted last year from police armouries during widespread rioting in rural Kulgam. Bhat was released on bail in April last year after spending five years in jail under trial for the 2011 murder of Shopian doctor Masood Ahmad who was killed in the course of a personal feud. Bhat, along with his friends Sartaj Ahmad and Altaf Lone, was charged with having pushed Ahmad out of a moving vehicle.
Phone records obtained for cellphones known to belong to members of the group, sources said, also showed that they were in the vicinity of murder. “We are continuing to question people to determine how the killers came to know Lieutenant Fayaz would be attending the wedding”, an official familiar with the investigation said.
Bhat’s father, Abdul Jabbar Bhat, reported that Bhat had skipped bail and gone missing from home on September 25, the date he is thought to have joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The Hizb operative is also suspected, police sources said, of the April 17 murder of Imtiyaz Ahmad Khan, one of three lawyers involved in prosecuting the 2011 murder of the Shopian murder.
Khan, a resident of Pinjoora in Shopian, was shot dead with an Insas rifle outside his home late in the evening, in an execution-style killing that closely resembled Fayaz’s murder. Khan, a 36-year-old lawyer, was also related to National Conference activist Shabbir Kullay and campaigned for him during the 2014 elections, when he stood from Shopian as an independent candidate.
Now 27, Bhat grew up in the village of Mantribugh, just a few kilometres from Fayaz’s home in Sursun and graduated from a local college. He taught briefly at a private school in the area, police records state, where he was working when he was arrested in the 2011 murder case. “It’s likely he knew of Lieutenant Fayaz for many years”, an officer familiar with the case said. “There aren’t exactly a lot of students who go on to join the Army”.
Ishfaq Ahmad Thokar, code-named Abrar, who is believed to have become active in the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in September 2015, and Ghias-ul-Islam Thokar, code-named Fahad, who joined the group 13 months later, operated mainly in the area around their home village, Paderpora. Paderpora is a short distance from Sursun; both men may again have been acquainted with Fayaz.
Though the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen gained some numbers of local recruits in the wake of the killing of local jihadist Burhan Wani in the summer of 2016, none of the recruits are known to have received advanced training in arms or tactics so far, and have relied on banditry or village-level contributions for their finances.