Keran Sector: Fear mounts in Zirhama village but General claims it does not exist

Keran: On September 23, Mohammad Sultan Khan, 37, a resident of Zirhama village in Kupwara's Keran Sector, was standing on the thatched rooftop of his wooden shack as family members prepared for dinner. Around 8 pm, there was the unmistakable sound of gunfire from the nearby village of Shala Bhata, an uninhabited village of abandoned houses and a few oval-shaped army bunkers built of mud. There was rattling gunfire and accompanying blasts, unnerving the Khan family.

 Keran Sector: Fear mounts in Zirhama village but General claims it does not exist

Army personnel in Keran, not far from the LoC, on Thursday. Shahid Tantray/Firstpost

“It seemed as if war had began. The firing was uninterrupted, and it was not like the gunfights that used to take place in early 1990’s. The sound was different, and it continued throughout the night,” Khan told Firstpost, in a nearby village where he along with his family have migrated temporarily, “till the time the gunfight stops”. They have left behind the wooden shack, along with livestock, unattended, their only sources of income.

Though Khan would learn the details only later, around 35 infiltrators, including some reportedly dressed as Pakistani Special Forces, had descended from the Biswal and Ahithana posts on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, and had allegedly occupied two Indian posts, Khukri and Kullar, in the vicinity of Shala Bhata.

The army, according to official sources, had vacated the posts a week earlier amid a change of guard. When it spotted movement inside the vacated bunkers, a fierce gun-battle started.

Lieutenant-General Gurmeet Singh, the XV Corps commander, denies any posts were occupied.  He also said there was no such village, a claim that mystified journalists, officials and local residents alike.

The attempt to infiltrate was strategically well-timed, sources say. It appears that the Pakistani side had an eye on recent movement of troops in the area. The infiltration attempt happened when the 20 Kumaon regiment had handed over charge to the 3/3 Gorkha Rifles.

What is now winding down in Keran is one of the longest gunfights along the LoC in decades. But since January 6 this year, when the Pakistani army claimed that one of its soldiers had been killed in unprovoked firing by the Indian side in the nondescript village of Churunda in Uri, the 778-km-long Line of Control has witnessed more than 150 ceasefire violations.

The alleged Churunda incident was followed by the beheading of two Indian soldiers in the Mendher sector of Poonch, and since then, the LoC has remained tense.

Khan says he heard some potters working for the Army say there was a verbal duel between the soldiers on either side when the Indian Army was about to move its unit.

“We have been living in an atmosphere of peace for the last many years now. After the Indian soldiers were killed in Jammu, there have been repeated verbal fights between soldiers from the two sides, which would sometimes also end up in exchange of fire,” Khan said

The Army has responded to reports that the intruders had occupied the entire ghost village of Shala Bhata as "absurd", but security analysts admit this is the first time that intruders have stood their ground on Indian territory for so long.

Additionally, with the bodies of the slain intruders missing, sources in Keran said it appears that the intruders could have escaped the Army cordon and actually managed to take back the bodies of the dead. These were the men killed by the army in the first “contact” and their bodies had been claimed to have been lying in the open for a week.  This means the army has still not succeeded in cutting the infiltrators' logistical lines back into Pakistan.

On Thursday morning, sources said, there was sporadic exchange of fire at four places in Keran Sector. Whenever the Indian Army tried to move ahead closer to the LoC, the men were met with heavy machine gun fire from the Pakistani side. “The infiltrators, it seems from the ground, have the full backing of the Pakistani army who are using heavy machine guns to stop the forward movement of the Army," a police official in Kupwara told Firstpost.

The village of Shala Bhata has no permanent residents. Almost all the houses were vacated by residents decades ago amid the insurgency when firing incidents across the LoC became common. Most of its residents migrated to Jumgargh, Kathwali and Zirhama villages in the nearby areas. Others moved across the Line of Control.

Hiqmaat Ali, 65, a resident of Zirhama, who lived in Shala Bhata village in the early nineties, says the area used to be prone to infiltration. “Most of the Kashmiri militants, in the early nineties, would go to Pakistan for arms training from that side." He says from the last five days there has been frequent bursts of fire. "One can see smoke rising from the forests. I think Pakistani militants may have set the jungle on fire to escape,” Ali says.

Residents in the surrounding villages are apprehensive about their fate. Most of them say they once again might have to migrate to the plains. “If the situation continues to be like this, we might have to migrate once again to the plains,” Ali says.

He adds that no one wants to live in fear. “Our children are scared. The sound of helicopters hovering over the area has made them believe that war is going to happen. They can’t even sleep.”

As the fighting entered its 11th day, five Indian soldiers were injured, one of them critically. After the first contact was made, the army pressed additional forces, helicopters and spy drones into action.

“This is not a pure infiltration attempt. These could be 20 to 30 in number and may include (the Pakistan army’s) BAT,” Lieutenant General Gurmeet Singh of the 15 Corps said on Wednesday, referring to the Border Action Team of the Pakistani army. The unit consists of members of Pakistan’s commando Special Services Group.

The army said that Indian troops were being “heavily engaged” by continuous firing from Pakistan. “There were some special troops (involved in the infiltration bid), the training shows it. It is different from earlier attempts,” Singh added.

For the moment, Khan waits for the gunfight to end so that he can move back to his village once again.

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Updated Date: Oct 05, 2013 15:38:42 IST