by Masood Hussain
SRINAGAR: It was just a routine encounter and was presumed to have concluded after cops left with the body bags, three militants who were killed in an overnight gun-battle in Laroo village. Moments later, the people who had reached the smouldering house, there was a deafening blast and it led to the killing of seven people as many more are battling for life in the hospitals.
The Sunday crisis enforced a spontaneous strike in most of south Kashmir as the separatists in Srinagar announced a strike call for Monday. The tragedy hit Kashmir on the eve of the visit of Home Minister Rajnath Singh who is flying Tuesday morning for taking a review of security and development.
Laroo encounter took place the same night the yearly Urs of Mir Syed Simnani was scheduled. The central Asian saint is one of the most prominent Muslim preachers who had come and settled in Kashmir years before Mir Syed Ali Hamadani reached Kashmir. He is buried in Kulgam. The Urs had got a good rush to devotees to the local shrine. Because of the disturbances, the shrine management has cancelled all the follow-up events including a display of relics.
Police sources said they had specific information about the presence of a group of militants in the Laroo village, located at the walking distance from the main town.
Kulgam has two villages which are spelt differently but can be mistaken as the same. One is Lirow and another is Laroo. In between the two is Kulgam. The tragedy followed the gun-battle in Laroo village which is located on the junction angles where two roads – one from Anantnag and another from Boulsoo meet, in the periphery of the main town, slightly short of the bus stand.
Laroo is barely a kilometre from the main township, in fact at a stone’s throw from the new bus stand.
The operation was planned quickly. By late evening a mixed column of Special Operations Group (SOG), 9-Rashtriya Rifles and 18-CRPF left for the operation. The village was under distant siege soon by late evening. Residents said the militant trio had reported to the village almost an hour after the Isha prayers suggesting they actually were being chased by the counter-insurgency grid.
By around 2-am-midnight, the residents heard gunshots. Police sources said this established the contact when one of the three militants came out and was instantly killed. Siege tightened and the real battle started during wee hours. They were hiding in the residence of Sheraz Ahmad Bhat son of Ghulam Mohammad Bhat.
Authorities had already closed the internet and taken measures to prevent the tensions from escalating around.
What happened during the encounter is not known. All efforts to get the firsthand account of some residents failed as the communications are barred to the belt (they have been opened now). Sources, however, said the cops managed the family’s exit from the besieged home by around 7 am. The family comprises of the couple and their three kids. One police official said the militants were heavily armed and they did not create a chance to get the family out for most of the night.
It was after that the encounter took off. Two soldiers were injured in the encounter. The duo had sustained minor injuries but one among the two is said to be critical now. The counter-insurgency grid used various weapons to kill the two militants. During the encounter, the house caught fire and was up in flames.
By the time, the firing from other side stopped, it indicated that the encounter was over. The army and the police quickly collected the three bodies and declared the operation over. By the time, the mixed column moved out of the village, the house was still in flames. That was the reason, according to locals, the civilians jumped in to extinguish the fire and prevent it from escalation.
One report said there were minor clashes in the periphery of the village where some youth were pelting stones. Police, however, there was no law and order situation anywhere.
By the time the police drove with the dead bodies to Kulgam, a number of families had come to identify and claim the dead bodies. They were eventually identified as Shahid Ahmad Tantary son of Abdul Rashid Tantary, a resident of Wangam Shopian, Zubair Ahmad Lone son of Manzoor Ahmad Lone, a resident of Ahwatoo Kulgam and Yazil Ahmad Makroo, son of Mushtaq Ahmad, a resident of Arwani Bijbehara. Police said all the there were affiliated with Jaish-e-Muhammad. They also said they recovered some arms and ammunition.
Residents said that after the cordon was over and the police left with the bodies, hundreds of youth emerged from all directions. Some of them routinely went to the smouldering house and joined the firefighting. “They were somewhere near a room and one of the boys floated something,” one resident, who accompanied an injured to Srinagar hospital, said. “Suddenly there was a blast and his arms fell there.” He said nobody knew how many were injured in the blast as it triggered panic.
One 40-second video record that was shared on social media shows terribly disturbing images of people crying for help amid a number of injured scattered around. One had a serious injury in his face and was flat on the ground. Another was in the lap of a crying civilian. Then, suddenly somebody shouts: ‘get some vehicle, he is alive’. A few photographs of those terrible moments shows panic ruling the spot as young men were lined up as if sleeping.
In this mayhem, the people started shifting the injured to the local district hospital in Kulgam. Efforts to trace the hospital authorities failed because the authorities have barred all communications with Kulgam, right now. Reports, however, said three persons were brought dead to the district hospital in Kulgam.
“We got 11 patients from Kulgam and all were shifted from the local hospital,” Dr Mirab, the medical superintendent of the District Hospital in Anantnag, said. “We managed five of them locally. Six we shifted to Srinagar and of them, four had pellet injuries and two carried bullets.” He said the situation of the pellet injured was serious.
“We received four cases from the blast site of whom two were brought dead,” Dr Salim Tak, the Medical Superintendent of the SMHS said. “Of the two we are taking care of one who is critical. The other one, we shifted to the SKIMS.” Dr Tak said they also received 6-7 cases with pellet injuries in their eyes.
A medical health source told Kashmir Life that two persons – one each in SKIMS and SMHS, are critical. One is Auqib Dar with serious abdominal injury and another is Rahil Dar who is in SKIMS with the head injury.
“All the persons who died in Laroo – other than militants – had splinters of the explosives and none of them carried a bullet,” one official source told Kashmir Life. “All the pellet injuries came from Junglat Mundi in Anantnag where a serious law and order problem was there.” The official said that the law and order crisis was insignificant in Kulgam, unlike Anantnag. Barring the home that went up in flames, the operation was clean until the blast took the toll.
The slain civilians were identified as Talib Maqbool, a resident of Laroo, Tajamul Ahmad of Danew Bohgund village, Irshad Ahmad, a resident if Shurat village, Uzair Ahmad Dar, a resident of Rishipora, Mansoor Ahmad, a resident of Bohgund, and Aaqib Sheikh of Makanpora. There is one more person declared dead whose identity is not known to anybody, so far. One of the slain civilians is a minor and has five sisters.
A senior police officer said they have reports that the unidentified person is Javaid Ahmed lone, a resident of Hawoora, a driver by profession. “We also have a report that Laroo village has lost two boys and one of them is most probably Muqeem Bhat and his name has erroneously been listed as some Tajamul,” he said, insisting, “We are making efforts to get the actual identities.”
Since the civilian killings overtook the encounter, there were not detailed reports about the militant funerals. Reports said the funerals were well attended and at least in one case militants had made an appearance. But the reports were scanty in detail and credibility.
Kulgam SSP, Harmit Singh said they had raised three Nakas around the site of the clash of which he was manning one and two were handled by two of his DySPs. “After we collected the bodies, the site of the encounter was still hot and people resorted to stone pelting and rushed towards the site against warnings,” Singh said. “This was despite the warnings but it was responded by shots of stone pelting.” He said after the encounter is over, normally it is the army that moves out first and then it is CRPF followed by the fire and emergency services and at the last, it is the police that moves out of the scene.
“In Chamgund, locals told us after 10 days that there was something suspicious on a site and we exploded it,” the officer said. “In this case, some young men were hoping to recover some leftover arms of the slain militants and tried to dig to debris which was dangerous. They had succeeded once in that somewhere in the neighborhood where they recovered a rifle. A grenade is understood to have exploded and left nine persons injured. Seven have so far been declared dead of whom one is still not identified and two are admitted and responding to the treatment.”
Jammu and Kashmir Police issued a detailed statement about the incident, which is being used verbatim here:
“In Kulgam encounter while three terrorists of JeM terror outfits were killed, in the aftermath of the encounter when a large congregation entered the encounter site before it was cleared led to an explosion in which six people died…
After the conclusion of the encounter as the forces moved out, the locals from the area started assembling at the site of the encounter and had apparently fiddled with some stray explosive materials leading to an explosion. Consequently, some individuals sustained grievous injuries and some of the injured identified as Ubaid Laway, Tajamul, Irshad Ahmad Padder, Uzair Ahmad and Masroor Ahmad, unfortunately, succumbed when brought to hospitals, besides five other injured are undergoing treatment. It is pertinent to mention that this incident occurred post encounter.
Citizens are requested not to visit any encounter site until the site is sanitized by the bomb disposal team. We seek the cooperation of people in this regard for avoiding accidents of such nature. Police have registered a case in this regard and investigation has been initiated.”
Though Kulgam and most of south Kashmir went into an instant and spontaneous strike, the JRL leaders have called for a Kashmir wide strike on Monday. Fierce reactions came from all sides.
“Cannot have they sanitised this spot first and then permitted people. This could have avoided the tragedy,” local lawmaker and CPIM leader Yousuf Traigami said. “It is just a routine now; everyday Kashmiri people are getting killed.”
“Every day is a black day for Kashmir and New Delhi seems to have decided to silence Kashmiris on all costs,” independent lawmaker Engineer Rasheed said. “It is imperative for the political leadership of Kashmiris to take care of its duties and stop the genocide of its people.”
PDP president Ms Mehbooba Mufti said she was “extremely saddened” as “civilians were once again caught in the crossfire of violence” thus adding fuel to the volatile situation. “All words of condemnation, condolence sound very hollow at this tragedy,” she was quoted saying. She has appealed Governor, S P Malik to ensure all Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) are strictly adhered to while dealing with the security situations.
“It is heart-rending to learn about such incidents which have become the norm of the day,” NC president Dr Farooq Abdullah was quoted saying. “The situation calls for immediate de-escalation from all sides.” Omar Abdullah added: “A whole new generation is growing in conflict and what needs to be done is to start time-bound and result-oriented dialogue process.”
All business and trade bodies have strongly reacted to the spate of killings. A report said the University of Kashmir students offered funeral in absentia of the slain civilians late this evening.