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Explained: In militant attacks, long Poonch ops, concerns and very few answers

The long-drawn operation in the Poonch heights at Bhatta Durian completed its twelfth day on Friday without success.

Special Operations Group (SOG) personnel take positions in a forest area during the 12th day of the encounter between security personnel and militants, at Mendhar in Poonch district, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. (PTI Photo)

Security forces are grappling with two major situations in J&K — the killings of civilians in Kashmir, and a hunt for the militants who killed nine soldiers last week in Jammu’s Poonch area.

The long-drawn operation in the Poonch heights at Bhatta Durian completed its twelfth day on Friday without success. Security sources said there was yet no clarity on the number of militants, or if they were in one or several groups.

Not one of the militants has been sighted yet. All that can be said from the firefights in which the soldiers lost their lives, is that they appear to be well armed and well trained, a clue that they are unlikely to be from Poonch or from Kashmir, across the Pir Panjal range.

A senior security official said “nothing can be said with certainty at this point”.

The Army has laid a cordon in the area, which is about 12 km inside the Line of Control. Sources said “technology” was being used in the search.

Security forces at Surankote in Poonch. (Photo: PTI)

Former officials who have served in Jammu & Kashmir told The Indian Express that the terrain is tough, with low visibility because of the densely packed trees.

“It’s the same as in a game of hide-and-seek. The advantage lies with those who are hiding, than with the person searching,” said Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (retd), who commanded the Srinagar-based XV Corps from 2010 to 2012.

On Friday, the search operation yielded two small boxes, suspected to be IEDs. Army PRO Lt Col Devender Anand said both were destroyed on the spot.

Drones are reported to have been deployed over the thick pine forests to detect movement or any hideouts that the militants may be using. It remains unclear though, whether the militants are still in the forest or have escaped.

Army sources said there had been no “contact” with the militants — an exchange of fire — since last Saturday. The intense firing heard in the area on Friday morning was “speculative” fire by the search teams that got no response. There is a curfew in the area, and people have been asked to stay indoors.

Nearly two weeks into the operation that began on October 11, the Army has made no official statement. Five soldiers were killed in the Chamrer forest in the Surankote tehsil of Poonch that day; another four soldiers were killed on October 14.

But concern that this should have happened in an area that has been largely free of militancy for most of the last two decades since the Hilkaka episode of April-May 2003, was evident from the visit of Army chief General M M Naravane to Poonch and Rajouri earlier this week to review the security situation, both in the forward areas at the LoC and other parts of the two districts.

Army personnel at the encounter site in Mendhar, Poonch. (Photo: PTI)

Lt Gen Deependra Singh Hooda (retd), who served as Northern Army Commander from 2014-16, said the presence of militants in the area was “really worrying”.

He said one of the reasons why the recent militancy in the Valley has not spread to former hotbeds in Jammu is the absence of local support. “To my mind, if it is true that this group has been there for over two months, that is the real worry. The question then is, is there a change in the attitude of the local people?” Lt Gen Hooda said.

That the militants managed to evade detection for so long has also raised red flags.

Meanwhile, two videos surfaced, in one of which a man speaking in Kashmiri describes how he and a fellow militant had killed soldiers on October 11. The other has a long text message — in perfect English and with mood music playing in the background — challenging the Army to find them.

In the Valley, the police are yet to zero-in on anyone directly linked to the spate of killings of civilians in Srinagar and in South Kashmir — two Pandits, a Sikh, four non-local migrant daily wage earners, and two Kashmiri Muslims.

The killings were claimed by a shadowy group called The Resistance Front. Over the past few days, police have detained over 700 youths — and while the investigations have drawn a blank, the detentions have triggered angry reactions in the Valley. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti has called it “collective punishment”.

The coming together of these incidents has changed the security atmospherics in J&K from the apparently sanguine to crisis mode. There were no cross-border infiltrations from the beginnig of the year until July.

Security officials said this was largely due to the February 24 renewal of the India-Pakistan ceasefire understanding, as cross-border firing has often provided cover for infiltrators. But there have been several infiltration attempts since July, Army sources said. Security officials said between July and the end of September, 10-15 militants have crossed over.

Security forces during an encounter with terrorists at Nar Khas forest area of Poonch district, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (PTI Photo)

Gen Naravane said at the recent India Today Conclave that while the renewed ceasefire agreement had worked until July, “from the end of July, these sporadic incidents have started again. It is again following the pattern of 2003 when it started with one odd incident, and then rose to as good as not having a ceasefire”.

He said that over the last month, “we again see renewed attempts at infiltration”, and have foiled “two or three” such attempts. Beyond that too, “there have been three incidents of proper ceasefire violation, that is, one post firing at the other post, mostly in the area of Shamshabari Range, in North Kashmir”, he said.

After an infiltration attempt on September 18 at Uri, the Army conducted a massive combing operation in the area, and said it had killed three terrorists and caught a 19-year-old Pakistani cadre of the Lashkar-eToiba.

Several security officials The Indian Express spoke to said it was “not a coincidence” that the spurt in violence has followed the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan two months ago.

A security official acknowledged that there was a change in the mood in the Valley since the victory of the Taliban, and that this was “a matter of concern”.

Recruitment into militant groups has been continuing apace through the year. Security officials estimate that around 100 young Kashmiri men have been recruited this year. Many of them are “hybrid” or part-time militants, officials said. They may be enlisted for specific missions. Most of the recent spurt of killings were carried out with easy-to-conceal pistols.

IGP Kashmir Vijay Kumar said after an encounter in Shopian on October 20 that an LeT commander behind the October 18 killings of two daily-wage workers from Bihar in Kulgam had been killed.

But there is no assurance that the killings will stop. On October 16, hours after Kumar declared that two out of five terrorists in Srinagar had been killed and three others were close to getting “neutralised”, a street vendor from Bihar was shot in the head at point blank range in Srinagar, and a carpenter from UP was killed in Pulwama.

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