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Exclusive: Indian soldiers slain on LoC slept as death-trap closed

Internal army investigations into the killing of five Indian soldiers on the Line of Control earlier this month has found evidence the men were killed as they slept, highly placed military sources have told Firstpost.

The slain soldiers, investigators have concluded based on testimony from a survivor as well as analysis of  injuries and bullet marks at the ambush site, are believed to bivouaced in a stone shelter for the night during the course of a patrol, leaving a sixth soldier on guard duty.  The attack took place when the guard left the area for a few minutes to relieve himself, the sources said.

Did the soldiers relax due to the relative peace prevailing in the area they were patrolling? Reuters

Did the soldiers relax due to the relative peace prevailing in the area they were patrolling? Reuters

Army headquarters in New Delhi declined to respond to multiple requests for comment from Firstpost, saying saying only that an official investigation was still underway.

The killings have led to the disintegration of the ceasefire which went into place along the 740-kilometre Line of Control in 2003, with both armies trading machine gun, mortar and rocket fire on the arc that runs from Mendhar to Kargil. Indian troops were reported to have killed a Pakistani officer in the latest fighting on Monday, along the Line of Control in the Kargil sector.

From interviews with multiple military and intelligence sources, it's apparent that the ambush targetting the ill-fated patrol was meticulously planned. Troops of the 14 Maratha Light Infantry had just arrived in the Sarla battalion area of the 93 Infantry Brigade, stationed along the Line of Control north of Poonch, to relieve the 21 Bihar regiment.

The 21 Bihar regiment's Shambhu Sharan Rai, Vijaykumar Ray, Premnath Singh and Raghunandan Prasad, and the 14 Maratha Light Infantry's Pundlik Mane and Sambhaji Kute, were sent out on a patrol to familiarise the newcomers with the terrain.

Cheeta-PostThe patrol headed out from Cheeta, a post six kilometres west of Poonch, along the Betad nullah, or moutain stream, which heads towards the Line of Control. They were headed for Delta, an occasionally-occupied position half-way to another major post, code-named Begum. The posts guard the Line of Control areas around the village of Khari Karmara, facing the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir village of Bandi Abbaspur.

Elsewhere on the Line of Control, troops would have been extremely cautious about resting in the course of a patrol. The troops had no reason to expect trouble, though: the Chakan-da-Bagh sector, home to a trading post where cross-Line of Control trade is conducted, has long been peaceful.

Late that night, the sources said, the men bivouaced at a position some 450 metres across from the Line of Control--having crossed the border fencing that runs some distance away. Kute was put on guard duty, while the other men rested.

Kute, the only survivor, has told investigators he saw the patrol come under fire from multiple directions, the sources said. He was, however, unable to provide substantial further detail - bar saying he thought some 20 men, some in uniform - had executed the pre-dawn ambush.

Forensics have shown the slain men were killed with single shots, fired at almost point-blank range, evidence of a surgical, well planned ambush.  Kute, by his account to military investigators, had no opportunity to respond. Hopelessly outnumbered, firing back would have achieved nothing in any case.

"There's little doubt it was a highly professional ambush", a senior military official said, "and there's no way it could have happened without Pakistani troops nearby knowing it was being planned".

"This was not done by some semi-trained jihadis," he said.

The survivor's testimony may have resulted in Antony's ambiguous statement in Parliament. PTI

The survivor's testimony may have resulted in Antony's ambiguous statement in Parliament. PTI

Kute's less-than-complete testimony, New Delhi-based government sources claimed, led union defence minister AK Antony to issue a  ambiguously-worded statement soon after the attack, saying it was carried out by "20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms".

Antony's statement appeared to refute an earlier statement by the army, saying the killings were carried out by terrorists "along with soldiers of the Pakistan army". In January, after the beheading of an Indian soldier, Antony had expressly charged Pakistan's élite Special Services Group with the outrage.

Following protests in Parliament, Antony issued a fresh statement blaming Pakistan's army for the killing. Indian military officials say they have intelligence that elements of the 801 Mujahid Battalion, stationed across the Line of Control, carried out the attack.

There has still been no explanation of why the attack was carried out, and Pakistan has denied any role in the killings.

Fighting on the Line of Control has escalated steadily since January, 2008-less than three months after Pervez Ashfaq Kayani took charge as Pakistan's army chief, replacing former president Pervez Musharraf. Multiple skirmishes took place that year, culminating in the killing of 2/8 Gurkha Regiment soldier Jawashwar Chhame on June 5, at the Kranti Border Observation Post near Salhotri village.

In October last year, a fresh cycle of fighting broke out, sparked off by the construction of new border observation positions by Indian troops in Uri--building-works that Pakistan alleged violated the unwritten terms of the 2003 ceasefire. The low-grade skirmishes culminated in the  beheadings of Lance-Naik Hem Raj and Lance-Naik Sudhakar Naik in January, allegedly by Pakistani soldiers, in January this year.

Friction between the two armies re-erupted periodically after the beheadings, with Pakistan claiming, in February, that one of its soldiers had been executed in cold blood after accidentally straying across the Line of Control and being taken prisoner.  India, however, disputed this version of events.  Pakistan also claimed that one of its soldiers had been shot dead in the Keran sector, in a cross-Line of Control exchange of fire.

Experts say a string of recent incidents show troops and paramilitary personnel have relaxed their guard, the consequence of a decade of relative peace in Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier this month, video released  on a jihadist forum showed the army's convoy protection parties and highway domination teams failed to respond for over fifteen minutes to an ambush in which eight Indian soldiers were killed. In March, five Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed in an assault on their camp in Srinagar, with terrorists again penetrating lax perimeter security.

"Kashmir has been quiet for several years now", said military expert Mandeep Bajwa, "and that means people have let down their guard. This is a wake-up call for everyone".