In a major setback to the Hizbul Mujahideen, Yasin Yatoo alias Mehmood Ghaznavi, a top Hizbul commander in the Valley, was killed Sunday in a gunbattle with a joint team of the Army, CRPF and J&K Police at Awneera village in south Kashmir’s Shopian district.
The operation, which lasted over 15 hours, claimed the lives of two soldiers, identified as Sepoy Gawai Sumedh Waman of Akola in Maharashtra and Sepoy Ilayaraja P from Sivagangai in Tamil Nadu. Two associates of Yatoo — identified as Umar Majeed and Sheikh Irfan-ul-Haq — were also killed.
Speaking to The Indian Express, IG (Kashmir Zone) Muneer Khan described the killing of Yatoo as a “very big success”. “He was one of the top commanders active here. It was a difficult operation in a place surrounded by orchards and nullahs, but we were successful,” said Khan.
Police sources said the joint team cordoned off Awneera after receiving information that a group of nine Hizb and Lashkar-e-Toiba commanders, including Yatoo and Altaf Ahmad Dar from Kulgam, had assembled in the village for a meeting.
However, even as the cordon was being put in place, residents of the village started pelting stones at the joint team. Sources said that while the militants and security forces opened fire, another group of militants started firing at the soldiers from outside the perimeter. “This is for the first time in over a decade that militants from outside the site of the gunbattle have come to the help of their besieged associates,” said sources.
“I have never seen militants firing from such close range. The soldier who was killed was just ten metres ahead of me,” said a senior officer.
According to police sources, the firing by militants and the stone-throwing by local residents helped several other militants, including two other Hizb commanders Saddam and Altaf, escape. “The attack from outside was an attempt to help Ghaznavi escape but he could not break the cordon despite moving from one house to another. We have also recovered a Krinkov rifle,” said sources.
Ghaznavi’s death is a major setback to the outfit at a time when it is trying to prevent the rise of Zakir Musa, the breakaway militant who has set up Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, the first affiliate of Al Qaida in Kashmir.
According to a senior J&K police officer, Yatoo was an “old hand” and a “thinking militant with a lot of experience and training”. But it’s the story of his life that really explains why security agencies are describing him as their “most important catch”.
For six months last year, it was believed that Yatoo had slipped to his death during an operation at the LoC, with his funeral prayers being held in absentia at his family home in Budgam’s Nagam village. But according to police, Yatoo had taken over as Hizb’s operational chief in Kashmir by then and had feigned his death to escape the security radar.
From the time he first joined the militancy in 1996, when he was a second-year undergraduate student at Amar Singh College in Srinagar, till he became the operations chief of the Hizb, Yatoo’s profile was marked by arrests and detention under the Public Safety Act. In between, he made his way back to the Hizb thrice after signing up for the first time in 1996.
Police records show Yatoo was first motivated to join militant ranks by “a section commander of Hizb, Bashir Ahmad alias Jehangir, of Kaisar mohalla Chadoora”. In the last week of September 1996, police say, he left for arms training across the border.
According to police records, “After reaching Tujar sharief by taxi, it took him 15 days on foot to cross the LoC and reach Neelam valley. He was sent to Oogi camp across the LoC.” Police sources say Yatoo returned in 1998 and “remained active for five months in Bandipore area”.
“But then, he fought with some foreign militants, was disarmed, and fled back home,’’ said sources. Police claim Yatoo “surrendered” before Budgam SSP in November 1998.
After his release, Yatoo resumed his studies. But in April 2002, police sources say, “he was motivated to reactivate by a Hizb commander, Mohammad Yasin Rather alias Musaib, of Kralpora Chadoora”. That month, police was, he was involved in two “actions” in which one of his associates Ishfaq was killed.
Yatoo remained active in Budgam, this time, for seven months — until October 2002, when he was part of a group ambushed by BSF while crossing the Chadoora bridge. “He escaped to Jammu for a few weeks, but was arrested on November 21, 2002, by BSF in Chadoora market,’’ sources said.
This time, Yatoo was released in June 2004 and returned home to start a business in readymade garments and stationery in Chadoora. Nine months later, he was back with the Hizb. In December 2005, he and his associates were encircled by the 34 Rashtriya Rifles at Gulab Dagi in Tangmarg. “In the encounter, Musaib and three other local Hizb militants were killed. Yatoo escaped and was made Hizb’s district commander for Budgam,’’ sources said.
In June 2006, Yatoo was travelling from Pampore to Awantipora when police intercepted his vehicle and arrested him. After his release in 2009, Yatoo started working with his brother at their grocery shop. “This time, he was busy at home, and also started delivering sermons during Friday prayers,” said sources.
In August 2010, Yatoo was arrested again while waiting for a bus near his home in Chadoora. He was accused of participating in summer protests of 2010 and jailed under PSA till April 2015. Eight months later, Yatoo left home — this time to fake his death.
“He was the anchor of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s activities and the only top commander preventing cadre from coming under the influence of Zakir Musa. For us, he was the most important catch,” said a senior police officer.