by Masood Hussain

SRINAGAR: It was yet another gun battle between the counter-insurgent forces and the militants. But the killing of seven civilians and injuries to scores made it the one that former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah called it a massacre. In reaction, Kashmir is expected to remain closed in protest as the JRL triumvirate has called for the strike.

People offer joint funeral prayers for a civilian Abid Lone, and local militant Adnan Ahmed in Karimabad village of Pulwama on Saturday, December 15, 2018. Seven civilians, three Militant and a soldier were killed on December 15 during a gunfight. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

So far, seven civilians, three militants and an army man are confirmed to have been killed. There are various others who were injured and two of them were barely brought out of the operation theatre in SMHS Srinagar.

The news of the killings spread like wildlife across Kashmir. Pulwama was crippled within minutes and at various places across Kashmir, there were reports of pitched battles between the police and the protesting civilians. However, no injury was reported in these protests. The governor Satya Pal Malik has asked the Divisional Commissioner to enquire into the killing.

What About The Encounter?

Though authorities shut the internet services in most of Kashmir thus preventing information to move, the reports reaching from Pulwama said the counterinsurgency grid had specific information about the presence of militants in an orchard. The apple orchard is located in the outskirts of Sirnoo hamlet, which is barely 1.5 ms from Pulwama town on the Muran Road. In recent days, this one was a rare gun-battle in which no residential structure was involved.

Reports said that the militants were hiding in a shed of an apple orchard and the spot was cordoned off late last night. Initial reports about the operation had indicated Aglar belt but eventually, it was the Sirnoo village outskirts. The orchard is actually located in the outskirts of Sirnoo as well as Monghama. Residents said they heard the gunshots but were not aware of where it was taking place, initially. “But it was very clear that it was too close,” one resident, who did not wish to be named, said. “It was later at around 8 am that we came to know that the encounter had actually broken in an orchard.”

The cordon had been laid during the night but the gun battle actually took place slightly before 8 am. It ended quickly. Since the militants were not hold up in a strong building, as they usually are, the shed in the open orchard was vanquished so easily.

The counter-insurgency grid had come in huge numbers and with multiple forces. Troops from the 55 Rashtriya Rifles had come from various local garrison and personnel from 181 and 182 Bn CRPF were also part of the operation. The Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operation Group (SOG) was also part of the mixed column that was in the operation. Two army men were injured in the encounter of whom one later succumbed to his injuries. He was identified as Kishan Singh.

Police have stated that they have registered an FIR in the incident but details were not immediately known.

The Economic Times has reported that at least three residents of Kharpora were dragged out of their homes and used as human shields. “The Army dragged, 35-year-old Firdous Ahmad Najar, a teacher in J&K government, out of his house along with his brother and two neighbors at around 6 am on Saturday,” the newspaper reported. “The Army then took them to the orchard, where the forces had already laid multilevel cordon.

The newspaper quoted Najar saying: “We were ordered to remove stacks of logs scattered in different parts of the orchard and forced to enter into a non-functional poultry farm, which they suspected to be the hideout of militants.” Later, Najar was pushed to remove another stack of logs near a canal in the middle of the orchard. “I removed the logs and saw two tactical boots. “The army man beside me immediately fired bullets, without bothering for our lives. They fired at the hideout from 15 to 20 feet distance and then took the positions around the spot. All four of us were kept hostages, as we laid in the orchard on abdomen till the firing was over at around 11 am. Then they left us there.”

The three persons were let free later. In fact, Najar’s cousin was killed in the subsequent shooting by the army. Witnesses told the newspaper that there were not many stones around because the spot of the encounter and around it are paddy fields and orchards.

How Civilians Were Killed?

This is a rare encounter in which seven civilians were killed. The reason, residents said, was that the site was in an open field that was accessible from all sides.  Within minutes after it was established that the encounter is taking place in an orchard, youth from all the sides started moving towards the spot. Unlike the residential areas, there was no clear marking of the outer and the inner cordons. Some youth moved too close and some were literally sloganeering from a distance in sort of a distant circle.

“An army jeep was moving out of the site when its driver felt tense because of the protesters around,” one resident of Karimabad who witnessed the incident said. “It tilted one side and it did receive some stones. One army man also received a stone and in response, the army men in this vehicle opened fire in all directions.” The jeep was on the Sirnoo-Karimabad link road which is a kacha road.

The bullet hit people like a shower and most of the hits were not aimed at scaring the people away, resident said. “They were aimed to kill,” they added.

The Scene From The Hospitals

The well-equipped district hospital Pulwama being the closet and used to tackling such load was the first priority for the people to shift the injured. It remained very busy and in a way chaotic for most of the day as it emerged the second stop for people after the encounter site.

People carry injured civilians to a hospital for treatment on December 15, 2018. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“We received a total of 32 injured during the day and six of them were brought dead,” a senior functionary of the hospital said. “Almost 13 of them were referred to Srinagar’s SMHS and Bones and Joints Hospital. Two of the injured whom we referred to Srinagar were critical. Of them, Tawseef Ahmad succumbed to his injuries in the SMHS and Jehangir is doing better after surgery.”

The hospital said the six persons who were brought dead had bullet injuries in their heads, necks or chests. In other cases, the pellets or bullets had hit the organs which did not prove lethal, they said. “We managed all others locally,” he said.

At the SMHS hospital in Srinagar, the main facility that tackles most of the load in emergency situations, hundreds of people were seen accompanying the patients injured during the clashes near encounter site at Pulwama.

One of the patients was 45-year-old Gulzar Ahmed Sheikh who had sustained bullet injuries in his shoulder. He was injured while he was moving towards encounter site after the gun battle had ended. “He had received bullet wound on his shoulder making an exit wound on the back of his shoulder,” said his attending doctor, Salman. “Bullet has been removed from his body and his condition is stable.”

Scenes outside the hospital were chaotic and tense with more and more people pouring in to see the injured. Doctors said they have treated six patients with bullet and pellet injuries. Two persons with minor injuries were treated and discharged immediately.

Jehangir, a teenager was being operated for bullet injuries in his abdomen. He was injured when forces fired upon the protesters near encounter site. Doctors have removed the bullet from his abdomen and his condition is stated to be stable. Out of six patients brought to SMHS one was declared dead.

Medical Superintendent SKIMS Dr Farooq Jan confirmed that they have received two injured including one with a bullet in his leg and another head injury due to stone. “Both injured are being operated upon and their condition is stable,” Jan was quoted saying.

Medical Superintendent Bone and Joint Hospital Barzullah, AR Budoo has said his hospital received seven injured who are undergoing treatment. “The condition of all of them are stable”, Budoo said.

Who The Slain Civilians Were?

Seven civilians were killed in the army firing. Six of them were brought dead to the district hospital in Pulwama and one was declared dead in the SHMS. All of them were youth and one was actually a minor.

Abid Husain Lone, 32, was one of the slain persons. A resident of Karimabad, he was the son of Ghulam Nabi Lone. A management graduate, he was doing some job in Indonesia where he married a local girl, Saima. Early this year, a resident who knows the family said, he had flown home with his wife and they had a daughter who is now three months old. Her name is Zaina.

Saima, wife of slain civilian Abid Hussain Lone of Karimabad village of Pulwama on Saturday, December 15, 2018. Pic: Shahid Mushtaq

“It was a double jeopardy for the young lady. People are crying at her home because she is not able to understand the local language and even the women mourning the killing are not able to communicate with her,” a resident who visited the family and who saw Lone being killed said. “The crisis for her is that she has lost her parents and her brother and sister were killed in a road accident. The only blood relation she had was her niece whom she brought with her to Kashmir. Now she is rendered destitute by the killing and has to raise her niece and daughter.”

Zaina, 3-month-old daughter of slain civilian Abid Hussain Lone of Karimabad village of Pulwama on Saturday, December 15, 2018. Pic: Shahid Mushtaq

Incidentally, Lone was trying for a job but was settled as his family is better placed. Lone’s brother and cousin work in Bangalore but could not make it to his funeral. However, the family said they should not wait and Lone was laid to rest.

Lone’s neighbour who was part of the crowd said Lone was sitting near a tree, almost half a kilometre away, when a bullet hit the left side of his face and left through his neck. “He died within minutes,” the person said. “Lone was a sober-minded person and was not part of any stone-throwing mob.”

Another young boy who was killed was 17-year old Liyaqat Ahmad Wani, son of a milkman in Parigam near Newa. A resident whose brother saw him being hit told Kashmir Life that he had completed his eleventh class and has filled the form for the twelfth class. “He had taken the admission fee and the form and left for Pulwama but the situation was not conducive so he returned back,” the resident said. “On his way back, he accompanied many other students and they went towards the encounter site and then there was firing and they fled but Liyaqat was running away from site alone and was hit in his head.”

Liyaqat has two elder brothers – one is handicapped and another is a carpenter. Their father is s milkman. “We laid him to rest at 3 pm,” the resident said.

From Bellow village, there was a young student who was killed in the firing. He was identified as Suhail Ahmad Dar. “He passed ninth class examination recently and was admitted to the tenth standard recently,” one resident who know the boys said. “He was hit in his head and we laid him to rest at around 2:30 pm. The entire village is into mourning.”

Dar is the son of a farmer who is mentally unsound. “Now he has two daughters,” the resident, who knows the family, said.

The Prechoo village that is located almost 4 km from the spot of the clash had two young men injured in the incident and both had bullet injuries. One died almost instantly and another survived after a surgery in the SMHS hospital.

A well-informed resident told Kashmir Life that the young man who was killed was Auqib Ahmad Bhat, son of a woodcutter. Locally he is also known as Murtaza. “He passed eighth class recently and was just admitted to the ninth standard,” the resident said. “It is a fact that the boy had gone to the area and was killed on the Barpora road but it is also a fact that he was not a stone pelter but a promising cricketer.”

“When we visited the bereaved family, there was not enough space to accommodate the mourners,” the resident said, insisting the family is poor. “Now his father has a daughter who is in tenth standard and a minor son who is probably in the third standard.” The boy was laid to rest at around 2:30 pm.

The other person from the village who was hit by a bullet and survived was identified as Sameer Ahmad Ganai, a matriculate who gave up education and is a mechanic. “He must be around 19 years of age,” the resident said. “He was hit by a bullet in his abdomen and has survived after the surgery.”

The Ashmunder village, which is also not far away from the spot of the encounter, Amir Ahmad Palla was killed. Reports said that he was running a Pollution Checking Centre which was the main source of the income to the family. He has an aged father and he was sole bread-winner.

Munghama village is very close to the encounter site. The village lost Shahbaz Ahmad Najar, the son of Mohammad Ismail Najar. Residents said he was studying in the BA first year. He is survived by his carpenter father and two sisters and a brother. His only brother is mentally unfit. Residents said the family is a poor one.

Urichursoo is almost 6 km away from the spot of the clash but one young man was killed from this village as well. Identified as Tawseef Ahmad Mir, son of Mohammad Ahsan Mir, he was the only brother of five sisters and is married with two kids.

Residents said that Mir had gone to the local milkman with his surplus milk for sale. “There, he found an auto ready to move towards the encounter site and he also joined the people,” one resident said. “As he reached the spot and came down from the auto, there were two persons who had been hit by the bullet. He picked one, in order to take him away from the spot, and that is where a bullet hit him.”

Residents said Mir, a matriculate was a need-based helper working for the Power Development Department and was the sole breadwinner of a larger family. His dependents include his parents, grandfather and two kids with the daughter of four years and a son of two years.

How People Reacted?

The killings triggered a chain reaction. After the killing of seven civilians near the encounter site in Sirnoo village of Pulwama almost all sides irrespective of their ideology or affiliation condemned the killings terming it a bloodbath. While the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) called for a three days strike against the killings, Omar Abdullah termed the killings as a blood-soaked weekend.

Condemning the unabated killings of civilians’ NC party President Dr Farooq Abdullah said, “Valley has been turned into a theatre of death and destruction. Incidents like these put a big question mark on the working of government and security agencies in such circumstances. I am deeply saddened over the killing of civilians in Pulwama. My heart goes out to families who have lost their loved ones in the incident,” adding, “The incident must be probed thoroughly and those found guilty must be brought to book. I pray for peace to departed souls and wish a speedy recovery to the injured.”

Party general secretary Haji Ali Muhammad Sagar addressed a news conference. He said that governor administration seemingly has given free hand to the forces to aim at civilians like sitting ducks. “The incumbent governor administration has no respect for human rights and basic fundamental rights. Our party in unison condemns the killings in strongest terms, such acts reveal the disdain of incumbent governor administration for human rights,” he said.

“No probe enough to bring back the dead innocent civilians. South Kashmir has been reeling under fear for the last 6 months. Is this what was expected from Gov rule? The admin has failed in securing civilian lives. Deepest condolences to the bereaved,” Mehbooba Mufti wrote on Twitter.

“How long are we going to shoulder the coffins of our youngsters? So many civilians killed today post encounter in Pulwama. No country can win a war by killing its own people. I strongly condemn these killings, and once again appeal for efforts, to stop this bloodbath,” Mehbooba tweeted.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on Saturday called the Pulwama encounter as “horrible day” and blood-soaked weekend in Kashmir.

Taking to social networking site Twitter, Omar wrote: “Another blood-soaked weekend in Kashmir. 6 protestors killed, 1 soldier killed in the line of duty. Together with the 3 militants from this morning’s encounter that’s 10 dead. Reports of many injured at the encounter site. What a horrible day!”

“The administration of Governor Malik has one task & one task only – to focus on the security of the people of J&K & restore peace to a troubled valley. Sadly it appears that’s the only thing the administration is not doing. Publicity campaigns & full-page ads don’t bring peace,” Omar tweeted.

Clashes between youth and government forces in Pulwama after the killing of seven Civilians and three militants on Saturday, December 15, 2018. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

CPI (M) lawmaker from Kulgam, Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami in a statement said: “For how long the blood of civilians will continue to flow in Kashmir? There was a need for bold initiatives, but the record of the present regime in Delhi is not only disappointing, but it has also added fuel to the fire because of its erroneous policies vis-à-vis Kashmir.”

“The civilian killings have become the everyday norm in Kashmir now and it seems Delhi is least bothered about this,” said Tarigami in a statement.

“Condemnation and ordering a probe after every killing is not enough. What is required is making forces accountable and punishing those responsible for such unfortunate killings,” he said.

Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA) Chairman, Haji Mohammad Yasin Khan, said, “The systematic killing of people of Kashmir needs an immediate end or that this pre-programmed genocide will backlash in the form of a never before agitation the onus of which will on the government and its forces.”

AIP President Er Rasheed has strongly reacted to the “brutal massacre” in Pulwama at the hands of so-called “security forces.”

“Pulwama massacre has exposed the tall but false claims of governor Satya Pal Malik that everything is normal in Kashmir and men in uniform have lost the moral right to be called security forces.”

“Governor wants everyone to shut mouth and kill every Kashmiri who dares to speak against Indian colonialism and barbarism,” said Er Rasheed in a statement.

Er Rasheed appealed world community to take notice of “Indian atrocities” on unarmed Kashmiris and appealed human rights organizations to use their influence in stopping Delhi from killing Kashmiris in cold-blooded murders every day.

Murtaza Ahmad Bhat a resident of Prichoo.

Taking to social networking site Twitter Hurriyat (M) Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq wrote: “Bullets and pellets rain! As Govt of India has decided to kill Kashmiri’s through its #ArmedForces who control us, JRL and people will march towards Badami Bagh Army cantonment on Monday 17 Dec to ask GOI to kill all of us at one time rather than killing us daily.”

“From today onwards for three days mourning and complete protest strike will be observed all across,” Mirwaiz tweeted.

Who Was The Militant Trio?

Three militants were killed in the orchard encounter. One of them was a former army man who deserted the army and joined militants.

Identified as Zahoor Ahmad Thokar, formerly with 173 Territorial Army, he was reported missing from his camp in Gantmulla area in Baramulla on the night of July 5, 2017. He had left with an AK47 rifle and three magazines. On July 29, Hizb ul-Mujahideen in a statement announced that Zahoor has joined them. Zahoor was a resident of Sirnoo village in Pulwama. There have been cases of desertion by locals from the army, but Zahoor’s was the first case where an army man has gone missing with his weapon. The police have raided his family many times after he deserted the army. In fact, the Pandit families who are Thokar’s neighbours were raided many times, reports appearing in media said. Thokar, before picking up arms was a friend of one of the families that mourned his death.

Another militant who was killed was identified as Adnan Hameed Bhat, 24, a resident of Karimabad in Pulwama. He went missing after he found an AK47 rifle near the gunfight site in Futlipora village of Budgam on November 30, 2017. A few days later he declared he has joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Adnan, an orphan, is survived by his mother, younger brother, and sister. His father, a policeman died of cancer a few years back.

The last of three militants who were killed in the encounter was Bilal Ahmad Magray, 19, a resident of Rajpora. Reports said he joined Hizb-ul-Mujahideen just two and half months back in the last week of September 2018. He was helping his family in the fields before he joined militant ranks. Bilal is survived by his parents, younger sister and two brothers. A student of twelfth standard, Bilal was the sole bread earner for his family before he joined militant ranks.

Two of the three slain militants were laid to rest. Thokar is being buried on Sunday, late evening reports said.

What The Police Said?

The army did not issue a statement at all. However, police issued the following statement (sic).

“A search operation was launched jointly by the security forces based on a credible input about the presence of terrorists in Monghama area of village Sirnoo in District Pulwama today morning.

During the search operation, which was an open field with hideout made by the terrorists, hiding terrorists fired indiscriminately leading to an encounter.

Mourners wailing near the body of Murtaza, a 14-year-old civilian, in Pulwama on Saturday, December 15, 2018. Seven civilians, three militants and a soldier were killed.
KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Consequently, Army personnel got injured and one Army jawan succumbed to his injury while others are being treated at a hospital.

While the operation was going on, a crowd who came dangerously close from different parts to the encounter site got injured.

The injured were evacuated to the hospital where unfortunately seven persons succumbed to their injuries.

Others who were admitted in the hospital are stated to be stable.

The loss of civilians is deeply grieved. Police once again appeals the citizens to remain away from encounter site as it is a prohibited zone which involves significant danger to life because of the nature of the encounter.

In this encounter, three terrorists were killed. Bodies were handed over to the legal heirs after completion of medico-legal formalities.

One of the killed terrorists has been identified as Zahoor Ahmad Thoker son of Abdul Majid Thoker resident of Sirnoo Pulwama. Pertinently, Zahoor had deserted from Army last year and joined HM terror outfit. He was a known terrorist commander and was wanted by law for his complicity in a series of terror crimes including attacks on security establishments and civilian atrocities. Several terror cases were registered against him and the prominent among them are case FIR No. 37/2018 U/S 307 RPC 7/27 I.A.Act P/S Rajpora, Case FIR No. 105/2018 U/S ¾ Exp Sub Act, 427 RPC, 3 P.P.T Act P/S Pulwama, Case FIR No. 124/2018 U/S 7/27 I.A. Act, 148,336,149,307 RPC P/S Pulwama, Case FIR No. 128/2018 U/S ¾ Exp Sub Act 307 RPC P/S Pulwama, Case FIR No. 139/2018 U/S 307 RPC 7/25 ULA of P/S Pulwama pertaining to the killing of policemen Aqib Ahmad Wagay of Puchal Pulwama.

Police have registered a case in the matter. Incriminating materials including arms and ammunition recovered from the site of the encounter have been taken in case of records for further investigation and probe their complicity in other terror cases.”

How Governor Reacted?

In a security review meeting involving senior officers of the State and of Central Police Forces, Governor Satya Pal Malik expressed grief over the loss of lives during the anti-militancy operation in Sirnoo area of Pulwama district today, in which 7 civilians died after post- operation clashes.

“Governor reviewed the latest security scenario in Kashmir including details of the counter-infiltration and counter-terrorist operations undertaken recently. He directed the security forces to minimize the collateral damage during anti-terror operations. He has recommended people-friendly measures during such operations, asking the security forces and the administration to address the post operations complications,” a spokesman for the Raj Bhawan said in a statement.

“After reviewing the prevailing security situation and arising challenges Governor emphasized the crucial importance of maintaining a sustained close watch on the ground situation, and appreciated the sustained real-time coordination and synergy between the Security Forces and the Civil Administration.”

The spokesman said: “Pained by the unnecessary and avoidable loss of civilian lives in operation, Governor appealed to the people to keep a distance from areas where anti-militancy operations are in progress. He appealed to them not to go near such areas during or immediately after such operations. Governor directed security forces to give time for people to evacuate from an area during an anti-militancy operation as per the laid down SOP.”

Governor Satya Pal Malik chairs Security review meeting at Raj Bhawan Jammu on Saturday, December 15, 2018

Governor also directed Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir to inquire about the incident that happened in Pulwama today and suggest precautions to minimise civilian casualties in anti-militancy operations, the spokesman added.

The meeting was attended by adviser K Vijay Kumar, B.V.R. Subrahmanyam, Chief Secretary; Dilbagh Singh, Director General of Police; Umang Narula, Principal Secretary to Governor; R.K. Goyal, Principal Secretary Home; SDS Jamwal, IGP Jammu and officers of State and Central Police forces, Baseer Khan, Div. Commissioner Kashmir; Muneer Khan, ADGP, Law, and Order; S.P. Pani, IGP, Kashmir and Ravideep Singh Sahi, IG CRPF.

(Shams Irfan, Saima Bhat, Tahir Bhat, Omer Fayaz and Aamir Aijaz from Srinagar, Sheikh Hilal from Shopian and Bilal Bahadur from Pulwama contributed to this story)

Note: More information was added to this report almost 24 hours after it was first published.


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