Sharply escalating the situation on the Line of Control (LoC), three Indian soldiers were killed and the body of one of them was mutilated Tuesday in the Machil sector of Kupwara district in north Kashmir, an incident that infuriated the Army Northern Command which promised “retribution will be heavy for this cowardly act”.
The soldiers from the 57 Rashtriya Rifles, Army sources said, were ambushed while staging a counter-infiltration patrol along the Lashdat nullah, a small mountain stream which heads up from a village north of the town of Kupwara, through the dense Kalaroos forests towards the Sonapindi pass.
Precisely how the three soldiers were killed remains unclear, the sources said, but added that the men lost contact with the main body of their section-strength patrol after it walked into a carefully-planned ambush, which military sources said, likely involved both Pakistani special forces personnel and jihadists. Pakistan Border Action Teams have carried out such attacks in the past.
The Sonapindi Gali, in the Machil sector, leads on to the LoC, and is a major axis of jihadist infiltration from the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir town of Keran.
The infiltrators congregate in the Kalaroos forests before heading out, in small groups, into north Kashmir towns around Kupwara.
The killings raise the prospect of an escalation of retaliatory strikes against Pakistani forward positions. In New Delhi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was briefed on the incident by Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt General Bipin Rawat. Army chief General Dalbir Singh is on a four-day official visit to China.
Ever since India announced on September 29 that it had carried out surgical strikes on terror launch pads along the LoC, troops on either side have been trading fire daily. Thirteen Indian soldiers have died so far.
This is the second attack on the Army in less than a month in the same sector. On October 29, Mandeep Singh, a soldier serving with the 17 Sikh Regiment, was killed and then beheaded while out on patrol ahead of Kala Post, one of several Indian forward positions in the Machil sector, in the midst of small arms and mortar fire.
Singh’s patrol was sent to foil an infiltration bid which was being aided by Pakistani troops who had directed fire on Dana, Khan Basti and Tantray Basti, an arc of villages near the mouth of a mountain stream that leads up from the Neelum river on to the forests of Kalaroos.
Intelligence sources said a succession of warnings had been issued on ambushes targeting Army patrols in recent weeks, based on intercepted communications across the LoC. The most recent, sources said, was issued by the Intelligence Bureau over the weekend, while an area-specific warning on a strike in the Machil area was released last week.
“The Army is well aware of these threats, which exist in almost every sector today,” a senior military officer said. “Every unit patrolling the LoC is exercising great caution, but there will be times our adversaries will be successful. That is in the nature of war.”
Following Mandeep Singh’s killing, seven Pakistani soldiers were killed across the LoC from the town of Sundarbani, when their patrol was caught out in the open by Indian machine-gun and mortar fire. The soldiers’ killings, though unacknowledged by India, was seen in Pakistan as intended to retaliate against Singh’s execution.
“The Pakistan Army simply cannot afford to be seen by its own rank and file to be backing down in this tit-for-tat game,” a senior Indian intelligence official said. “They know they are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by India on the LoC, but are calculating that New Delhi’s own concerns about the risk of war, will deter it from escalating the conflict further.”
Also Tuesday, two foreign militants were killed at Hajin in Bandipore district. Securitymen seized arms and ammunition and found that the militants were carrying two notes of the new Rs 2,000 denomination.