Days of incessant snowfall that blocked the Jammu-Srinagar highway and a bandh call by separatists led to two convoys being bunched together to create a 78-vehicle convoy that was moving as many as 2,500 personnel, CRPF sources have said.
CRPF sources, including a member of the convoy which came under attack, told The Indian Express that usually convoys start from Jammu in regular vehicles early in the morning and make a pit stop at Qazigund. Here, the occupants shift to bunker or armoured vehicles given the threat perception associated with the route ahead.
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However, on Thursday, because two convoys were made to move from Jammu to Srinagar to avoid the pile-up, only a part of the convoy got armoured vehicles. It was a bus in the second convoy that came under attack in the Lethpora area of Pulwama when the bomb-laden SUV rammed into it killing 40 soldiers.
“The problem was that for seven days there had been no convoy movement. Men were returning from leave and other postings but were not able to move towards Srinagar. More than 5,000-6,000 men had gathered in Jammu. It had begun to create problems in the camps in Jammu and so a decision was taken to move two convoys together,” said a CRPF constable who was part of the convoy that came under attack.
According to the constable, the convoys had set out from Jammu at 3.30 am and made a pit stop at Qazigund at around 11 am. “At Qazigund, we are always moved into bunker vehicles. But because there were so many of us, occupants of one of the convoys were made to sit in normal vehicles and then both convoys were asked to proceed together,” the constable said.
“May be some lives could have been saved if the SUV had hit an armoured vehicle,” he said.
Said a CRPF officer: “When you have such a large convoy, it is not possible to provide so many armoured vehicles. Also this is not the first time that inclement weather or a law-and-order situation has prevented movement for days and forced CRPF’s hands to move large convoys. All SOPs, which include road opening exercise and area sanitisation, are followed. This was an unprecedented attack and given the intensity of the blast, it is not sure whether an armoured vehicle would have provided more protection.”
According to the constable, after leaving Qazigund, the convoy reached Lethpora around 3 pm. When it was crossing Latoomode, he said, suddenly a speeding Scorpio came on the highway. In less than a minute, it crashed into the second bus of the second convoy.
“There was this massive light that blinded us. The explosion was so loud that we were unable to hear anything for some time. Our whole bus was shaken and a few window-panes cracked. We were so shocked that we kept sitting in the bus for at least 10 minutes. My mind was completely blank. It was only after some time that we registered what sounded like gunfire. I am not sure whether it was by terrorists or our own men firing after the attack,” he said.
It was only after then, he said, that CRPF men began alighting from vehicles and rushed to the spot. “Jo manzar humne dekha, sabki cheekhein nikal gayi. (The ghastly sight made us scream in horror.) The bus, it seemed, had disappeared. There was blood, remains strewn all around. Many of us began to cry. So many of them were my close friends,” he said.
According to the constable, the bus carried two men who had just joined the force and were going for their first posting after finishing training. “They hadn’t even seen their unit,” he said.
By evening, the convoy reached Srinagar where shock and grief is turning into anger. Many of his colleagues, the constable said, are still recuperating and have not been able to eat since the attack. There are others who want to hit back.
“There are many who are angry. No one can carry so much explosive in a car without some local support,” he said.