Blast at Kulgam encounter site post gunfight shows how stone pelters prevent forces from clinically wrapping up operations

Laroo is in the volatile south Kashmir’s Kulgam district, a hotbed of the separatist militancy. Late on Saturday night as villagers in Laroo returned to their homes from a marriage function, Sheraz Ahmad Bhat did not think that anything was amiss.

Around midnight, however, strange knocks on his door led to a series of events that would shake up Kashmir. Three Kashmiri recruits of the Pakistan based militant outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad, had sought shelter in Bhat’s home and were gunned down in a gunfight that erupted in the next few hours.

 Blast at Kulgam encounter site post gunfight shows how stone pelters prevent forces from clinically wrapping up operations

People clear debris from the damaged house where militants were hiding during an encounter, at Kulgam district of South Kashmir on 21 October, 2018. PTI

Gunfights and subsequent mourning over the deaths of militants are not new to Kashmir but on Sunday, the Valley was taken aback as six civilians were killed in a blast at the site of the gunfight in Laroo, shortly after security forces had withdrawn from the area.

A large number of civilians had gathered at the site when an explosive left behind after the operation was triggered. Videos of the incident showed dozens of injured lying on the ground while some were being carried by their arms and legs. The injured were rushed to nearby district hospitals from where those critically injured were rushed to hospitals in Srinagar. Two civilians were declared dead on arrival while four more succumbed to their injuries at the hospital.

The incident was condemned by various quarters in the Valley -- including unionist and separatist politicians. The Indian Army conveyed its “heartfelt condolences” to the families of those killed in the blast. Kashmir, however, observed a shutdown against the deaths on Monday, at the call of the separatists. The separatists have also called for a march to Srinagar’s commercial hub Lal Chowk on Tuesday.

The gunfight

Bhat had gone to sleep soon after the village quieted down on Saturday night. The three gunmen knocked at his doors and had forcibly entered his house half an hour past midnight, Bhat claimed. An hour later security forces had completely surrounded the neighbourhood and evacuated civilians in the vicinity, except the Bhat family.

By around 4 am full-fledged gunfight had erupted as the first gunshots were heard and continued till hours after dawn. Local residents said that one of the three militants was killed before dawn as he attempted to escape from the neighbourhood that was under a tight cordon.

Bhat alleged that his family was not evacuated till about 7 in the morning. “We could not even give water to our children while we were inside,” Bhat said. “We were all crouching under the sink in the kitchen.”

By 8 am security forces use explosives to set Bhat’s house on fire – a method used by security forces to speed up operations by forcing militants out of buildings they take positions in and into the open where they can be easily gunned down. The two remaining militants were gunned down in a brief shootout shortly.

At the same time, two large mobs of stone pelters had amassed on both sides of Laroo village – one group was engaged by security forces at a site towards Kanipora village while the other was being engaged near the Shurat village.

By 9 am the gunfight had ended and security forces began to withdraw from the site of the gunfight by around 10.30 am during which stone pelters who had gathered near Shurat reached the site of the gunfight. Soon after, at around 11 am according to local residents, a loud blast occurred at the site.

According to one eyewitness, the blast occurred near the entrance of the house as young men and boys had gathered over the rubble. Two civilians from Shurat were killed in the blast and at least one more injured. According to a young man from Shurat, who was injured in the blast, civilians were “thrown off their feet” by the blast. Resting in a ward at a hospital in Srinagar, he said his “ears were still ringing from the sound of the blast”.

Bhat said that no warning was issued to him against proceeding towards his now destroyed house but according to one stone pelter who part of the Kanipora group of stone pelters, warnings were the reason youth poured into the site. “The house owner told us that he had warned boys against moving further as the police had told him there were explosives,” he said.

The stone pelter, who did not want to be identified, said that the youth suspected that there were more dead bodies or weapons left behind as they found the warning “unusual”. Civilians routinely throng the sites of gunfights and there have been several instances in the past where “stray explosives” have set off causing fatalities.

Bhat’s modest two storey house is located inside the Bon Mohalla in Laroo. Local residents said it was because of the congested layout that more people could not gather at the site. “Otherwise there would have been several more dead bodies here,” one resident said. The walls of what stands of Bhat’s house tilted and developed cracks due to the impact.

Failure to observe SOP?

Following every gunfight security forces as per their standard operating procedure must sanitise the site of all unexploded explosives before allowing civilians to proceed to the area. However, in recent years the security forces, under pressure from stone pelters, have had to speed up operations adversely affecting clearance operations.

Soon after the blast, the Jammu and Kashmir Police issued an advisory warning people against visiting the site of the gunfight. However, since Monday morning civilians still continued to throng the site of the gunfight and local residents said no subsequent clearance operation was undertaken.

The previous day, local residents said the security forces were present at the site of the gunfight for at least two hours after the gunfight had ended. Now, local residents believe that the explosives were left behind “deliberately” to prevent civilians from gathering at sites of gunfights.

Updated Date: Oct 22, 2018 22:21:08 IST