by Saima Bhat
SRINAGAR: The 18-hour gunfight between the militants and a mixed contingent of the army, CRPF and the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police ended with the killing of a civilian, four army personnel, a policeman and three militants in Pinglina area of Pulwama on Monday. Police said the slain militant trio are said from the Jaish e Muhammad (JeM), the same militant group responsible for the suicide bombing on the convoy on Lethpora highway that left more than 40 CRPF dead and triggered a crisis across India.
The gun battle also saw personnel from different forces; including a brigade commander; a lieutenant colonel and a deputy inspector general of the Jammu and Kashmir police were injured. The gun-battle took place in Naik Mohalla, Pinglina village, about 12 km from the Lethpora site. This was the first encounter after the deadly attack on CRPF convoy in Lethpora that killed more than 40 CRPF personnel on February 14.
The encounter disrupted the movement in the belt and added to the tensions that continued since Thursday when the JeM bomber blew himself up in a CRPF convoy. Internet services remained down for the belt.
The gunfight, according to police, broke out Monday morning after a joint team of army’s 55 RR, SOG and CRPF launched a cordon-and-search operation following a “credible inputs” about the presence of two to three militants. As the search was going on there was an exchange of fire that resulted in the gunfight between the two sides. At least five residential houses have been completely damaged in the gunfight.
According to police, the five houses were damaged as the militants changed their locations, with two houses completely. These houses belong to Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Fayaz Ahmad Hajam, Muhammad Yousuf Hajam, and Noor Mohammad Hajam.
In the encounter, three JeM militants were killed including a local militant Hilal Ahmad Naik alias Rashid, 24, who was in the category C grade militant. Naik, son of Ghulam Mohammad had joined the militant group on June 01, 2018 and before joining militancy he was working as a laboratory technician. He had studied till 12th class before taking the lab training. The other two militants are said to be foreigners, Kamran alias Fahad and Rashid alias Gazi alias Lukman, both the resident of Pakistan administered Kashmir.
As the last reports came in, the bodies of civilian Mushtaq and local militant Hilal have been handed over to their families. The slain soldiers and the personnel who were injured in the encounter are at army’s 92 base hospital.
Among the four slain army personnel is a Major rank officer who was identified as Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal, 33. He had joined the Army in 2011. A resident of Village Dangwal in Dehradun, Uttrakhand, he is survived by his wife.
Havaldar Sheo Ram, 36, had joined Army in 2000 and he was from Jhunjhunu , Rajasthan. He is survived by his wife and a son. Sepoy Hari Singh, 26, he had joined Army in 2011. He is survived by his wife and a son. He was from Village Rajgarh of Distt Rewari, Haryana. And Sepoy Ajay Kumar, 27, was from Village Bastikri in Meerut, UP. He had joined Army in 2012 and his wife and a son survive him.
A SOG head constable Abdul Rasheed was also killed in the encounter. A resident of Tangdhar in Kupwara, he is survived by his wife, two minor daughters Hafsa Rashid, 06, Mehrooz Rashid, 10 months and a brother.
Meanwhile, nine others were injured in the encounter including DIG south Kashmir range, Amit Kumar who got a superficial injury after a bullet passed his leg. As the last report came in he was still undergoing treatment in the theatre of 92 base hospital and was said to be stable. The injured also included a lieutenant colonel and Brigadier Harbor Singh. The latter was heading 12 Sector RR.
Late night Monday, the wreath-laying event was held at DPL Srinagar for HC Rasheed where DGP and advisor K Vijay Kumar also participated and another event was held at BB Cantt, Badamibagh, which was attended by Lt Gen KJS Dhillon, Chinar Corps Commander and all ranks. The mortal remains of the slain personnel are in the process of being dispatched to the families.
Human Shield Allegations
After the encounter was over, the locals bee-lined the houses of civilians who were taken along by the forces personnel at around midnight. Though all were left after the encounter concluded at around 5.30 pm, but Mushtaq Ahmad did not return home. He was consumed by the encounter.
It was around 12.45am, according to the locals, when forces barged into the house of four houses in Naik Mohalla. “They took Imtiyaz Ahmad Hakeem, 38, Sajad Ahmad Hakeem, 35, Altaf Ahmad Hakeem, 32, Mushtaq Ahmad, all locals, and Sadiq Khan, 50, who works at Gujjar and Bakerwal hostel in Pulwama but had come to meet his friends in Pinglina, along and used them as human shields,” one of the family member alleged.
Fear was quite visible on their faces. Imtiyaz Hakeem, a junior engineer, smiles and cries at the same time while receiving his neighbours, who come to congratulate him for returning home alive. “I don’t know how I am supposed to behave,” Hakeem said. “I can’t get it out of my mind that how we were used as human shields throughout the night. We did not even know if we would be alive the next moment.”
“When they took us along, the firing had already started and we saw five bodies were already on the ground,” he said. “But the forces ordered us to go to the firing circle to check whose bodies they were. This, they did, despite knowing that bullets were flying around and we could get hit. They warned us if we don’t go, they would kill us. So both ways, we thought we were going to die.”
They were shocked to see their neighbour Mushtaq’s body with those of four army personnel. “They did not allow us to take Mushtaq’s body. Instead, for 18 hours, they used us to carry their ammunition, RDX, magazines and to search the militants,” the engineer alleged.
It was in the morning, that one of the Hakeem was allowed to take the body of Mushtaq that was kept in a house. “I drove him to the hospital in an ambulance but I knew he was already dead.”
According to Hakeem, they belong to a family of a senior state government officer. His grandfather, late Muhammad Akram Hajam, was an ex-custodian general J&K.
“All the three militants were killed in the by-lanes of our Mohalla.” Hakeem alleged that senior army and police officers were witnesses to what happened to them. Those pulled out of their homes and allegedly used as human shields included their uncle, Imtiyaz Jamal, 42, a teacher.
As the gun battle was raging in Pinglina, one of the major villages of Pulwama, the police issued two statements, separately.
The first statement read: “Based on credible inputs about the presence of militants in Pinglena area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, a cordon and search operation was launched jointly by Police and security forces in the intervening night in the area.
As the searches were going on, terrorists from inside the target house fired indiscriminately on the search party. In the initial burst of fire four army jawans and one civilian sustained critical gunshot injuries. They were evacuated to hospital for medical attention.
Consequently, four injured jawans attained martyrdom and the civilian also succumbed to his injuries. The deceased army men have been identified as Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal, Hawaldar Sheo Ram, Sepoy Hari Singh and Sepoy Ajay Kumar.
The fire was retaliated by the security forces leading to an encounter. In the ensuing encounter so far 02 militants have been killed and their bodies were retrieved from the site of encounter. The identities and affiliations of the killed militants are being ascertained. The encounter is still in progress and the security forces are on the job.
Citizens are requested not to venture inside encounter zone since such an area is a prohibited zone and can prove dangerous due to stray explosive materials.
People are requested to cooperate with police till the area is completely sanitized and cleared of all the explosive materials if any.”
The second statement was in continuation of the first one. It reads: “it is further informed that one more terrorist has been killed in the encounter with security forces. Also, one of our colleagues identified as Head Constable Abdul Rashid Kalas sustained gunshot injuries during the encounter. He was evacuated to hospital for medical attention where he attained martyrdom. Senior officers including DIG SKR Amit Kumar, Commander 12 sector also received injuries but are absolutely stable.
One of the three killed terrorists has been identified as Hilal resident of Pinglena Pulwama and from the incriminating material recovered from the site of encounter, the other two terrorists have been identified as foreigners from Pakistan known to be Kamaran@ Fahad and Rashid@Gazi@ Lukaman.
According to the police records, all the three killed terrorists were affiliated with proscribed terror outfit JeM and were wanted by the law for their complicity in a series of terror crimes including the attack on security establishments and civilian atrocities. The role of these terrorists in the recent Pulwama convoy attack is being probed as well.
Arms & ammunition including rifles were recovered from the site of encounter. All these materials have been taken in the case records for further investigation and to probe their complicity in other terror cases.
Citizens are once again requested not to venture inside the encounter zone since such an area can prove dangerous due to stray explosive materials. People are requested to cooperate with police till the area is completely sanitized and cleared of all the explosives materials if any.”
There are more details expected to come into the public domain on Tuesday when top officers of the Kashmir security grid will talk to the media.