Poonch Encounter Consumes Nadimarg Pandit Massacre ‘Mastermind’

SRINAGAR: The Poonch encounter is getting interesting if not murkier. With nine soldiers including two Junior Commissioned Officer’s (JCO) already dead in the fortnight-long operation, the encounter witnessed two cops and a soldier getting injured in the fresh skirmish on October 24, Monday.

A photograph taken from a distance in Pir Panchal felt after Pakistani shells landed in the forests

What distinguished the latest development on the Poonch front was that the cops accompanied a militant to the spot who was also injured and was left there. Under court orders, the militant was driven out of the jail where he was for more than a decade.

The latest round of casualties coincided with the flying of Home Minister, Amit Shah from Srinagar to Jammu for an overnight sojourn. Shah is on a 3-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir, his first after reading down Article 370.

“A jailed terrorist from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, who was remanded in police custody and was brought to the encounter site to identify possible routes the terrorists used, was also injured in the firing, officials said, adding that the injured terrorist could not be evacuated due to heavy firing,” the NDTV reported from Srinagar. The incident took place early Sunday morning when a joint search party of the Army and police was attacked by militants inside the forest.

Later in the afternoon, police said, they retrieved the body of the Lashkar militant from the forests. The injured cops were identified as Daleep Kumar, head constable and Mohammad Shafeeq, Selection Grade Constable. The soldier who was injured in the attack was Anand Talwar.

On Remand

The Jammu and Kashmir Police on October 23 took the detained militant on remand for 10 days. Identified as Zia Mustafa son of Abdul Kareem, a resident of Rawalakote in Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK), on the other side of the Poonch was taken for “questioning”.

This, according to Jammu based newspaper Daily Excelsior was on the basis “of the inputs that he was in touch with the group, which is hiding in the forest area through mobile telephone and has reportedly briefed them about infiltration route he once took while intruding into the Indian territory from the Line of Control (LoC)”. Zia has been a member of the proscribed Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) outfit.

It was after the court permission that the Gursi police station of Mendhar in Poonch took over his possession. It is this police station where the main FIR about the ongoing encounters is registered. The police, reports said had named Zia in the FIR 107/2021 lodged under Sections 302, 307, 120-B IPC and 7/25/26 Indian Arms Act.

Though police did not offer any details, Daily Excelsior reported reliable sources telling that “he was reportedly in touch with the group through mobile telephone and had briefed them about the route to be taken after infiltration from the LoC to cross Pir Panjal mountains and forests to reach South Kashmir.” He allegedly had shared the details of the route he had taken while intruding in Jammu and Kashmir, 15 years back.

Zia’s name might have figured during the investigations after the recovery of SIM cards and cell phones from the Kot Balwal jail. The newspaper reported that the Counter Intelligence wing of the Jammu and Kashmir Intelligence had seized “nearly a dozen SIM cards and Smart mobile telephones from Kot Bhalwal jail, some of which were in possession of the Pakistani militants”.

Post transit remand, Zia is reported to have been taken to Gursi police station where he was interrogated. This morning he was driven to the jungle where they were attacked. All including the injured returned except Zia.

In a statement, according to The Indian Express, the Jammu and Kashmir Police said that “Zia Mustafa, a Pakistani LeT terrorist, was taken to Bhata Durian for identification of terrorist hideout.” During the operation, “terrorists again opened fire on the joint team of police and army personnel in which two policemen and an army jawan sustained injuries. Mustafa also sustained injuries and could not be extracted from the site due to heavy fire.”

Not An Ordinary Prisoner

Writing in The Indian Express, Nirupama Subramanian reported that Mustafa was arrested in 2003 by Jammu and Police as “the mastermind” of the Nadimarg massacre in which 24 Kashmiri Pandits including 11 females and 2 toddlers were killed on March 23.

“Back in 2003, Mustafa’s arrest was announced on April 10, at a press conference by J&K DGP A K Suri in Srinagar,” she wrote. “Mustafa was paraded at the press conference as a big catch. Suri said he was a “district commander” of the LeT and had been involved in the killing of 24 Kashmiri Pandits, who had stayed on in their homes in village Nadimarg in Pulwama district.” From his possession, Suri said an AK rifle, ammunition, a wireless set were recovered, besides some documents.

Suri, then told reporters that Zia had infiltrated into Kashmir in September 2001 and had set up his base in Pulwama. He held him responsible for the attack on the IAF base as well.

“While Sunday’s incident has shown that militants are present and possibly have a hideout in the forests in the Bhata Durian area, the fact that Mustafa was in touch with his Pakistani handlers while in Kot Balwal, raises questions about the security at the prison,” Nirupuma wrote.

Interestingly, in later April 2003, Suri told reporters that Zia had led the security forces to a raid on a house in Yaripora where three Pakistani militants – Abu Rafeh, Abu Waseem and Abu Bilal – were killed. The trio, he had said belonged to Lashkar and were involved in the Pandit massacre.

A day later after the presser, Daly Excelsior reported that an anonymous spokesperson of the outfit told it through a long-distance call that Zia was in the custody of the SOG in Anantnag after his arrest on March 16.  “According to the anonymous caller, Zia Mustafa alias Abu Ma’az was initially shown a militant arrested on March 16 but later the matters were bungled and he was projected as the ‘planner’ of Nadimarg massacre,” the newspaper reported on April 11, 2003. “He claimed that on account of the militant’s arrest, one constable was promoted to the rank of ASI and three more were promoted to the rank of selection grade constable in another district in-spite of the fact that they were not involved in the militant’s arrest.”

The Massacre

The Nadimarg massacre, like many other massacres, was one of the brutal mass killings in Kashmir. Late in the night of March 23, almost 12 assailants wearing army fatigues and bulletproof vests barged into the dusky village, literally dragged the Kashmiri Pandits out of their homes are lined them up before killing them. The slain included 11 men and 11 women and two toddlers.

Though the administration, then led by Mufti Sayeed, attempted upgrading the security of the minority belts, most of the Pandits who survived the massacre fled to Jammu. They were amongst the few Pandits who had not left at the peak of 1990 migration. The massacre was widely condemned across the globe. The US even said it will work towards getting the perpetrators to justice.

The village was well protected. A police picket was manned by nine cops of whom, on that fateful night, three were absent and six were sleeping. The killers first visited their picket, collected their guns, kept them locked and then got their victims in the courtyard of their spot and resorted to the massacre.

In the subsequent days, the security grid killed a number of militants and some of them were held responsible for the massacre.

Under-trial

There are reports that Zia was being tried for the massacre for the last many years at the District Court Shopian. For facing justice, Zia was being held in Central Jail Srinagar. However, after the escape of Naveed Jatt from SMHS Hospital in February 2018, Zia was amongst 40 odd prisoners who were shifted out to Kot Balwal in Jammu. A year later in 2019, according to The New Indian Express he was being seriously considered for being transferred to Tihar jail along with others to prevent the other inmates from being radicalized.

In the Nadimarg massacre case, the police had registered FIR 24/2003 under sections 302, 450, 395, 120-B, 427 RPC 7/27 Arms Act at Police Station Zainapora on March 24, 2003. A month after the massacre, Border Security Force (BSF) claimed they killed three militants involved in the massacre on April 18, 2003, in Kulgam. On December 4, 2013, the police produced the charge-sheet before District and Sessions Court in Pulwama against Zia Mustafa, three militants killed by BSF in Kulgam and seven cops, who were on guard duty on the night of the massacre. Zia, however, pleaded in the court that at the time of the killings, he was in the custody of the Special Operations Group (SOG) in Anantnag.

Later the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir was directed by the Supreme Court – at the request of the Jammu and Kashmir government, that it must re-examine the case. The exact status of the case, as of now, is not immediately known.

The Operation Goes On

The Poonch encounter, however, is still in progress. The entire belt is under a tight cordon and the searches are a continuous process. The counter-insurgent forces have already taken 10 civilians in custody. These include four women, mostly housewives, and one of them with her teenage son. The women have been accused of offering food and shelter to the militants in Bhatta Durrian forests. The exact number of militants is not in the public domain. The latest arrests were that of two porters working with the Army in Surankote. They were handed over to the police by the troops over “suspicion on their links with the group of militants operating in the forests”.

During searches, the soldiers have recovered at least three Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) planted by the militants. All were defused by the Bomb Disposal Squad, the latest one only a day earlier.

Army Chief General M M Naravane near the encounter site in Poonch on October 19, 2021. The encounter involving an elusive group has led to the killing of nine soldiers.

The operation started on October 11, when the unspecified number of militants hiding in the forests ambushed the army killing five soldiers including a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) in Thanamandi area of Rajouri. On October 14, they struck again and killed four soldiers including a JCO in Nar Khas forest in Mendhar (Poonch).

Since then, the authorities have inducted commandos, drones and even choppers to assist the ground troops. So far, however, there is no information about the number of militants being chased in the dense forests. ArmyChief General MM Naravane visited the spot of the encounter last week.

Briefing reporters about the current status of the operation, an army official has said most of the forest stretch has been scanned and “now the search area is restricted to a location housing a number of natural caves”. The vehicular movement for civilians on Mendhar-Thanamandi road along the Jammu-Rajouri highway remained suspended for the ninth consecutive day.

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