Poonch Encounters

With counter-insurgency in Kashmir as the key focus, the tensions are rising in Poonch as the troops are readying for another harsh winter stay in Eastern Ladakh.

A photograph taken from a distance in Pir Panchal felt after Pakistani shells landed in the forests in 2019

With a focus on Kashmir on the internal security front and Ladakh, owing to the stand-off with China at the Line of Actual Control (LoAC), on the external front, it is the Pir Panchal Valley that has emerged a new security nightmare. The so-called two-front tension has manifested itself with a slight difference.

A series of civilian killings in recent days – 29 in 2021, including a few minority community members, had led to a chain of encounters across Kashmir.

In Pir Panchal

The challenge, however, erupted in Poonch forests where nine soldiers including two junior commissioned officer (JCO) were killed since October 11. It started with a brief encounter in Chamrer village of Surankote – falling in the Dera Ki Gali (DKG) belt on the border of Rajouri and Poonch, where a posse of troops was ambushed by militants.

The army was reacting to specific reports about the presence of militants. Apparently anticipating a reaction, militants had laid an ambush. In the very first volley of bullets, five soldiers were hit and eventually died. Quickly, a follow-up mission was launched with police and CRPF. They successfully managed to establish a contact (when there is a retaliatory fire to a fire) around Panghai (Thannamandi), around two kilometres from Chamrer, but the militants managed to give the troops a slip.

Of the five slain, three were from Punjab and one each from Kerala and UP. Punjab government announced Rs 50 lakh compensation and jobs for the next of the kin.

A Bloody Encounter

On October 14 evening, on the fourth day of the follow-up searches to the main attack, a posse of troops was combing dense Bhatta Durrian forests in Mendhar when they were attacked from a hillock. Two soldiers including a JCO were killed as another survived injured. Many days later, the army recovered the bodies of two more soldiers, who, till then were reported missing. Their bodies, reports said, were recovered from a forest brook.

The new attack led to the confirmation that the troops were chasing the same group that had fled Chamrer. As additional troops were mobilised, the security authorities halt the civilian vehicular movement in the entire belt, especially on Bhimber Gali-Poonch National Highway.  Mughal Road is already in a state of hugely monitored highway.

This cat and mouse game along the Mughal Road is being seen as the worst of its kind in the last 17 years.

The renewed clash between the militants and the military coincided with the statement by Home Minister, Amit Shah, saying the surgical strike carried out by India in 2016 sent a strong message to the world that no one can interfere with its borders. He was speaking to a gathering in South Goa. Shah is anticipated to fly to Jammu and Kashmir next week to review the overall security situation.

Army Chief General 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.

Not The First

Initially, it was said the militants could be a group of four. In the subsequent days, the entire security grid launched one of the massive cordon operations into the thick forest with challenging topography. Now nobody knows how many groups are operating in the forests.

Officials told reporters that they were aware of a group of militants holed up in the upper tract of Thannamandi, Surankote, Mendhar and Manjakote sub-divisions for the last few weeks. The recent attacks indicate it was a never group. Apparently, it was on basis of this that the security officials said that the group was in the area for the last three months.

The area had emerged as a security challenge quite early this year. On August 6, 2013, five soldiers (21 Bihar Regiment) were killed near Chakan-Da-Bagh (Poonch), not far away from the LoC. It was after this attack that three militants were killed at Panghai in which a JCO also lost his life on August 19. There were brief encounters in Sunderbani, Kalakote and Nowshehra as well. A general belief in the security grid is that the militants use rugged passes near LoC to cross over and then take the Mughal Road to reach Kashmir.  

Investigations

The entire belt is under a tight cordon. The civilian movement on a highway has been stopped and the people in the entire belt have been asked to stay home ill the operation is over. Though there are frequent exchanges of fire between militants and the army, so far nobody has been arrested or killed from the fugitive side.

However, the counter-insurgency grid has rounded up almost 10 civilians. These include four women and two porters, who otherwise work for the army in the border belt. Of them, eight belong to Mendhar and two are from Poonch. The entire belt in focus is at the border between the twin districts of Poonch and Rajouri. they are being questioned by different security and intelligence agencies about possible help – food and shelter, they might have extended to the fugitives. The detained include two young housewives, of whom, one has been arrested along with her son. They all have been held at Gursai police station.

The security grid has so far been able to locate and detonate with explosive devices during the ongoing combing operations. However, there is no clarity about the groups or groups and the total number of militants in the forests. The spot where these groups are being chased is almost 12 km inside the Line of Control. Apart from drones, the army has already deployed a chopper to help the troops on the ground. However, the area is densely planted and there are crippling visibility issues.

Army Chief, General M M Naravane flew to the area and also visited the Line of Control. He interacted with the soldiers who are part of the ongoing operation.

Meanwhile, The Indian Express reported that “two videos surfaced, in one of which a man speaking in Kashmiri describes how he and a fellow militant had killed soldiers on October 11. The other has a long text message — in perfect English and with mood music playing in the background — challenging the Army to find them.”

Indian army soldiers keeping vigil on LoC in Poonch (File Image)

Redeployments

People aware of the security set-up said the area was peaceful for a long time but the situation started changing gradually after part of the deployments in the region were shifted to Ladakh in early 2020. In the Eastern Ladakh area, India and China are in a standoff and seemingly it is going to be another harsh winter for the two armies.

The two sides have had more than thirteen rounds of talks since the Red Army barged into a vast stretch. It led to fist fighting and the violent clashes in the Galwan valley led to the killing of a score odd of troops. The negotiations, however, did lead to the status quo ante in certain areas. But the two sides failed to come to reach a consensus in the last round of talks as China rushed more troops to reinforce its occupation in certain areas.

The large-scale deployment in eastern Ladakh led the army chief M M Narvane to visit the area following which he said the Indian Army too will maintain its strength on its side. The two sides had earlier disengaged in the Gogra area in August and in the north and south banks of the Pangong lake in February. However, the Chinese accused Delhi of making “unreasonable and unrealistic” demands. India said it made “constructive suggestions” but the Chinese disagreed.

NEWS reaches the Line of Control (LoC), a 2015 photograph

Kashmir Focus

However, the focus of the security grid continues to be Kashmir where a series of assassinations led to a series of gun battles. In one day, there were three encounters in which seven militants were killed. So far, this year more than 120 militants have so far been killed. 

Police sources said the major success was the killing of Shameem Sofi killing, one of the last surviving militants who had allegedly planned the Lethpora car bomb in which more than 40 CRPF personnel were killed in the 2018 winter.

The Tilwan Mohalla encounter in Tral led to Sofi’s killing who had joined Jaish-e-Muhammad in 2019. A resident of Satoora, Aprpal, Sofi, 46, was a school drop-out who was earlier running a shop to help his family. Later, he remained in detention under Public Safety Act for two years. And once moving out became a small MGNREGA contractor. Later he returned to militancy.

A New Order

Meanwhile, the MHA has issued a notification that permits the Border Security Force (BSF) to “search, arrest and seize for the purpose of any offence punishable under the Passport Act, Registration of Foreigners Act, the Central Excise and Salt Act, the Foreigners Act, Foreign Exchange Management Act, the Customs Act or any other cognizable offence punishable under any other Central Act,” across Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The notification was issued by the MHA in exercise of powers conferred by the sub-section (I) of section 139 of the BSF ACT, 1968.

This notification comes at a time when there is renewed activity at the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and drone sightings along the International Border (IB) in Jammu. The order would allow the BSF to exercise and discharge the powers and duties without an order from the Magistrate or without a warrant.

(This report that appeared in the print edition was updated and upgraded before being used online)

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