In one of the longest operations in the Valley, 600-700 soldiers and para commandos have been scanning remote forests and villages of Haihama in North Kashmir for the past 24 days, searching for three militants.
It was during the search of this group of militants, who are believed to have sneaked into the Valley in the first week of November, that Commanding Officer, 41 Rashtriya Rifles, Santosh Mahadik got killed on November 17. Another senior officer, Lt Col Karan Bir Singh Natt, second-in-command of 160 Territorial Army, was injured in another shootout with the militants.
Troops from two Rashtriya Rifles battalions, a Territorial Army battalion, elite para commandos and the Special Operations Group of Police are part of the search, and have set up three temporary Army camps in the area.
The previous such operation in Jammu and Kashmir was back in 2003, when over a period of a month, the Army had killed more than 60 militants in Surankote, Jammu.
In 2013, there was a 15-day operation at Shalbatu near the Line of Control, not far from the Haihama sector, also following an alleged infiltration. While the Army claimed it had killed 12 militants during the operation, no body had been recovered.
Confirming that “it was one of the longest operations in the recent past”, defence spokesperson Lt Col N N Joshi told The Indian Express, “We have inputs about presence of militants in the area.”
The Army says the group originally comprised five militants, of which they killed one while another slipped off a mountain and died. The remaining three, all reportedly foreigners, are said to be hiding out in the dense forests.
“We have relaxed operations in the villages, but search is continuing in forests,” said a senior Army officer, sitting at one of the newly established camps, in Glasdaji village. Militants have engaged the Army thrice here in the past few weeks.
A temporary police post has now been set up in the house of the Hajinaka sarpanch. The post is manned by five men, including an officer. A senior police officer said the villagers requested for the post as they were “scared due to Army presence”.
Hajinaka sarpanch Raja Khan claimed to have seen the body of the militant who died when he fell off a cliff nearby. He was buried in the village.
“We are allowed out only from 9 am to 5 pm. We can’t step out in the evening as the Army ambush is everywhere,” Raj Wali of Hajinaka said. It was after three weeks that he was allowed to visit a neighboring village, he added.
Villagers said porters working for the Army had first spotted the five militants in Kemkeri near the LoC and passed on the information to the Army.
The first encounter was on November 13, up in the Kail forests, in which two soldiers were injured, though the militants managed to slip into the forests. Four days later, following information that they had been spotted at Manigah, Col Santosh Mahadik was leading a search party when he was injured and later died.
“After losing the officer, the Army established a strict cordon around the villages, saying nobody would be allowed to move outside. They told us they wouldn’t leave the area till all the militants were killed,” a villager said.
While others accused the Army of trying to use them as human shields, officials said they believed the militants were receiving help from at least some villagers.
Denying this, an 80-year-old from Gujjar Patti village, Laldin, said, “This area is surrounded by Army pickets. It is not possible for any civilian to help any militant here. It is very sad that some officials don’t believe us.”
A few days ago, the Army held a meeting with the villagers at Hajinaka, and told them it was their “responsibility” to help the force.