In one of the worst terror attacks on the Army in Jammu and Kashmir, 17 Army personnel were killed and 20 left injured early Sunday by four heavily armed terrorists who sneaked into the administrative buildings and store complex of an infantry battalion in Uri, home of the 12 Infantry Brigade, near the Line of Control (LoC).
Seven of the 20 injured soldiers, 18 of whom were evacuated in helicopters to the 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar, are said to be in critical condition.
The four terrorists were gunned down by Army personnel after a three-hour gunbattle, and a combing operation was underway. The Army said its initial findings suggested that the terrorists belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad and had come from across the LoC.
Among the dead, 15 soldiers were from the Bihar regiment while two were from the Dogra regiment. The Army said 13-14 casualties had been due to the tents and temporary shelters catching fire. It has not officially put out the list of the dead since some of the bodies are yet to be identified.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised that the attack will not go unpunished, Army chief General Dalbir Singh flew to Srinagar and then to Uri to take stock.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar too reached Srinagar where he was briefed by the Army chief. A red alert has been sounded across Kashmir and security measures at all Army installations have been stepped up.
Army sources in J&K said, as per their assessment, the terrorists probably infiltrated in the last two days and familiarised themselves with the area through discreet reconnaissance. It is suspected that some kind of local intelligence was made available, guiding the terrorists to strike where they did at a particular time and place.
The attack site is barely a kilometre away from Uri town. On the other side of the camp is Jabla village, 1.5 km away. Villagers have to pass through highly fortified camps and have to show special border passes to enter the brigade headquarters and its adjacent camps. The encounter spot is barely 2.5 km from the LoC Trade Facilitation Centre at Salamabad.
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In New Delhi, Lt General Ranbir Singh, Director General of Military Operations, said: “Initial reports indicate that the slain terrorists belong to Jaish-e-Muhammad tanzeem. Four AK-47 rifles and four under barrel grenade launchers, along with a large number of war-like stores, were recovered from them.”
Since the terrorists had some items with Pakistani markings, the DGMO spoke to his Pakistan Army counterpart and conveyed “our serious concerns on the same”.
A PTI report from Islamabad quoted Pakistan Army spokesman Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa as saying that the DGMOs discussed the situation along the LoC over hotline. “Refuting the unfounded and premature Indian allegation, Pakistan DGMO asked his counterpart to share any actionable intelligence,” Radio Pakistan reported citing an ISPR release.
The terrorists opened fire at the Uri administrative base of 10 Dogra — the infantry battalion is being replaced on the LoC by 6 Bihar as part of the 12 Infantry Brigade — around 5.30 am. Army sources in J&K said the terrorists sneaked into the camp via nallahs at the periphery of the camp. Along with AK-47, the terrorists also used incendiary ammunition which led to some of the tents and temporary accommodation catching fire.
These temporary accommodation had been erected for the incoming 6 Bihar battalion which had moved to Uri last week after completing a three-week pre-induction training at Corps Battle School, Khrew. The battalion had been addressed by the Brigade commander at a Sainik Sammelan Saturday. It was supposed to move for ‘on the job’ training with 10 Dogra, before fully replacing them on the LoC by October.
“The turn-over of units is the most vulnerable time, and all units are advised to be extra careful during this period. It is definitely a lapse but the terrorists also got lucky. There is huge concern at the highest levels that we couldn’t prevent this attack,” a senior Army officer said.
Army sources in J&K said the administrative base of the battalion also had rations and stores for Advanced Winter Stocking (AWS) of its posts at the LoC. These items, which are ferried to the posts before snowfall, are used by soldiers on the far-flung posts to sustain themselves during winter when they are cut-off. Kerosene oil is a major item in AWS and could have aggravated the fire, sources said.
On reports that specific intelligence inputs were available about Sunday’s terror attack, sources in the Udhampur-based Northern Command told The Indian Express: “Broad intelligence inputs were available for various locations in all sectors, including Uri and Mendhar. If you see around the same time last year, these same inputs in similar language were given. It is not correct to suggest that these intelligence inputs were ignored.”
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This was the third attack on the Army in north Kashmir in the past one month. Earlier, terrorists had attacked an Army convoy in Baramulla town, killing two soldiers. In another attack at Kralgund, three soldiers were injured.
A senior Army officer posted in the area said the reason for the high casualties was the large number of soldiers present due to the turn-over of battalions and the tents catching fire, as the terrorists fired indiscriminately. “As the troops were all over the camp, the Army and its QRTs (quick reaction teams) moved cautiously to avoid further casualties,’’ he added.
The camp had a designated QRT which reacted swiftly but maximum casualties were inflicted by the terrorists within the first few minutes of the attack. Soldiers within the camp and the QRTs cordoned off the area and engaged the terrorists who were heavily armed. Three terrorists were killed within 15 minutes of the start of firefight while the fourth terrorist was eliminated by 8.30 am.
The Army airlifted its injured to 92 Base Hospital in Srinagar. From morning until afternoon, Army helicopters conducted more than 20 sorties. Civil surgeons assisted the Army in carrying out surgeries at the Army hospital.
Mohammad Iqbal, a resident of Uri town, said: “I woke up to a deafening sound around 5.30 am, followed by two more blasts and firing. I initially thought it was cross-border shelling. Half an hour later, when the firing continued, it was clear that it was an attack.’’
Another resident, Manzoor Ahmad Khawja, said he had to go to Srinagar and wanted to start the journey early in the day. “I was loading my bags in the car when I heard a big blast and then there were two more blasts. I thought it was ceasefire violation and shelling. But when I looked towards the Brigade headquarters, I could see plumes of smoke and there was sound of continuous firing.”