Exclusive: Dirty war on LoC preceded deadly Poonch ambush

Early this month, five men disappeared from a village on the Pakistani side of the LoC — kidnapped, Pakistan alleges, by an Indian special forces unit fighting against a renewed wave of jihadist infiltration. The Poonch ambush, Indian intelligence believes, was retaliation.

Praveen Swami August 06, 2013 16:14:03 IST
Exclusive: Dirty war on LoC preceded deadly Poonch ambush

This, and only this, do we know for a fact: early this month, Zafran Ghulam Sarwar, Wajid Akbar, Mohammad Wajid Akbar and Mohammad Faisal left their homes on the Pakistani side of the control in the Neelam valley, and never came back.  Pakistan claims they were innocent herb collectors, who were kidnapped by an Indian special forces engaged in an offensive counter-terrorism operation across the Line of Control.

India says it has no idea what happened to the men. Not long after they disappeared, though, five still-unidentified men  were shot dead by Indian troops in the same area, 500 metres on the Indian side of the Line of Control. Naresh Vij, an Indian army spokesperson, said troops had "not recovered any bodies as they are lying very far."

Privately, Indian intelligence officials posted in the sector speculate the men may have indeed been targetted by special forces — but insist they were guides for jihadist groups crossing the Line of Control, not innocent men executed by the army for no reason at all.

Like everything else to do with the secret war Indian and Pakistani troops are locked in along the Line of Control, the facts are opaque. Few, charged with nationalist passions, are much interested in the truth, anyway.

Exclusive Dirty war on LoC preceded deadly Poonch ambush

Indian army soldiers patrol near the Line of Control (LOC), that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, in Churunda village in this Jan 2013 file photo. Image used for representational purposes only. Associated Press

Monday's killing of five troops from the 21 Bihar Regiment, marks the first significant crisis in India-Pakistan relations since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took power earlier this year.

The ambush, highly-placed army sources have told Firstpost, was almost certainly carried out to retaliate against a series of successful Indian operations in the northern stretches of the Line of Control. It targeted a routine patrol in a relatively peaceful area, near the Chakan-da-Bagh cross-Line of Control trading post.

The sources said a sixth soldier on the patrol, who escaped the firing, is being questioned to determine precisely what happened. Early accounts, though, all point to a disciplined, military-style operation.

The ambush comes, as Firstpost recently revealed, amidst the first year that violence in Jammu and Kashmir has shown an uptick since the near-war of 2001-2002. In the last week of July alone, 12 jihadists were killed in northern Kashmir's Kupwara district— levels of infiltration not seen in years. In the last major encounter, five terrorists were killed short of Hema post, on the Line of Control in Kupwara. The Line of Control (LoC)in the Jammu region has seen 42 exchanges of fire this year, the sources said, up from 28 in all of 2012.

This, however, we do also know: last night's lethal ambush in Poonch was just the latest in phase in a secret war along the Line of Control that have continued apace since the beheadings of Lance-Naik Hem Raj and Lance-Naik Sudhakar Naik in January. Friction between the two armies has been re-erupted periodically since February, when Pakistan alleged 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. "We detected some suspicious movement near the LoC inside our territory and the challengers from our side fired", said Lieutenant-Colonel Rajesh Kalia, a spokesperson for the Indian army.

Late last month, Pakistan complained that "unprovoked" Indian fire had led to the death of Sepoy Asim Iqbal in the Nazia Peer sector, near the town of Rawlakote.

India, however, said the firing began in response to an infiltration attempt.

The fighting had its genesis in events that began in October, when Pakistan complained of new Indian border works at Charunda, in Uri. India responded that the  works were purely defensive,  intended to prevent illegal border crossings. The unresolved dispute led to exchanges of fire, which eventually escalated into shelling and the killings of soldiers on both sides. The beheading of Indian soldiers in January was the culmination of a long series of attacks and counter-attacks— a vicious cycle driven  by the Pakistan army's continued support of jihadist infiltration into Kashmir.

The November 2003 ceasefire, Indian diplomatic sources say, was based on an unwritten “agreement,” which in essence stipulated that neither side would reinforce its fortifications along the Line of Control — a measure first agreed to after the 1971 war. In 2006, the two sides exchanged drafts for a formal agreement — but the talks have stalled.

Long before the dispute over border construction, though, several similar cross-border clashes had taken place.  In March, 1998, an Indian special forces unit is alleged to have killed 22 civilians at the village of Bandala, in the Chhamb sector; two villagers decapitated; the eyes of several others were allegedly gouged out by the attackers. The Pakistani military claimed to have recovered an Indian-made watch from the scene of the carnage, along with a hand-written note which asked, "How does your own blood feel?"

The Bandala massacre is alleged to have been carried to avenge massacre of 29 Hindu villagers at Prankote, in Jammu and Kashmir, by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Lashkar attackers slit the throats of their victims, which included women and infants.

Large-scale civilian killings did not take place again, but the Indian army continued to dish out at least as good as it got.  In May 1999, as the Kargil war broke out, Captain Saurabh Kalia, along with sepoys Bhanwar Lal Bagaria, Arjun Ram, Bhika Ram, Moola Ram and Naresh Singh, were kidnapped by Pakistani troops. Post mortem revealed that the men’s bodies had been burned with cigarette-ends and their genitals mutilated.

Late in January, 2000, seven Pakistani soldiers were alleged to have been captured in a raid on a post in the Nadala enclave, across the Neelam River. The seven soldiers were allegedly tied up and dragged across a ravine running across the LoC. The bodies were returned, according to Pakistan, bearing signs of brutal torture.

There have been a string of smaller incidents since the ceasefire went into force.  In  June, 2008, Pakistani troops attacked the Kranti border observation post near Salhotri village in Poonch, killing 2-8 Gurkha Regiment soldiers in Jawashwar Chhame.

The retaliation, when it came, was savage: Pakistani officials allege Indian troops beheaded a soldier and carried his head across on 19 June, 2008, in the Bhattal sector in Poonch.

Finally on 30 August, 2011, Pakistan complained that three soldiers, including a JCO, were beheaded in an Indian raid on a post in the Sharda sector, across the Neelam river valley in Kel— retaliation for the decapitation of two Indian soldiers near Karnah.

There's unlikely to be an end to this savagery until cross-border infiltration ends, and that's something that seems ever more unlikely. For Pakistan's army, facing an existential battle with the Tehreek-e-Taliban that it is unable to win, precipitating a crisis with India is an attractive option.  In the wake of 26/11, jihadists vowed to rally behind Pakistan if war with India broke out; that promise has since been renewed periodically.

It is self-evident that preventing a rapprochement between jihadists and the generals is in India’s best interest — the reason why both Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh proved willing to pay the political price for a policy of strategic restraint. India's own looming elections, though, are making such restraint ever more difficult for political leaders to practice.

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