Seven militants, including Ansar Ghazwatul Hind chief, killed in two gunfights in Kashmir's Shopian, Pulwama

Incidents such as the February attack and Friday's twin encounters highlight that militancy has now spread all across Kashmir and more youngsters are picking up guns and joining new militant groups

Ishfaq Naseem April 10, 2021 07:31:34 IST
Seven militants, including Ansar Ghazwatul Hind chief, killed in two gunfights in Kashmir's Shopian, Pulwama

The militants killed in Friday's encounter were holed up inside a mosque in Shopian. Image courtesy : Junaid Gulzar

Srinagar: One chilly February evening, on a day when the Indian government was hosting a foreign delegation to demonstrate 'normalcy' in Kashmir, the city's peace and calm was broken by a shooting incident right outside an iconic eatery in a posh area merely 200 metres from the hotel where envoys were lodged.

Militants shot and killed the son of the owner of Krishna Dhaba, a famous vegetarian restaurant that is a favourite haunt for non-locals, tourists and pilgrims. The attack resulted into a flurry of activity within the police department: Frequent police crackdowns, which had become a thing of the past following years of a lull in militancy here, started once again; people were constantly frisked, vehicles were searched, and metal barricades sprung up.

Less than two months later on Friday, the government forces killed seven militants including Imtiyaz Shah, the chief of Ansar Ghazwatul Hind (AGH), an Al-qaeda affiliate in Kashmir, in two separate gunfights in southern Kashmir's Pulwama and Shopian districts. Four army personnel were also wounded in the Shopian gunfight.

Imtiyaz, police said, had fled from the Shopian encounter site after throwing grenades during the initial phases of the operation. However, the security forces managed to corner them at the Nowbugh area of Tral in south Kashmir's Pulwama district where they were killed in a gunbattle.

Imtiyaz had joined militancy in April 2019, a police official said. A resident of Ruthsuna in Tral, he was active since 19 April 2019 and was a listed commander and an A+ categorized militant, added the official.

The incidents of militancy had seen a significant decline for several months after the abrogation of Kashmir's semi-autonomous status as, officials said, the government forces couldn't get the information about the location of militants in view of the communication blockade. The cell phone and internet services remained blocked for several months in the Valley.

In February, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, G Kishan Reddy, said in Rajya Sabha, that 82 security personnel were killed during the period of 173 days from 13 February 2019, to 4 August 2019, while 22 security force personnel were killed during a similar period of 173 days from 5 August 2019 till 2 January 2020.

There were hardly any gunfights witnessed from August 2019 to January 2020 as the forces were busy in tackling anti-government protests in Kashmir, said a police official.

But incidents such as the February attack and Friday's twin encounters highlight that militancy has now spread all across Kashmir and more youngsters are picking up guns and joining new militant groups.

Across Kashmir, over 200 militants are not only now active in southern Kashmir but have spread to areas that were previously considered peaceful. The militants' reach has now spread to more urban areas like Srinagar city and several areas of northern Kashmir including the district of Kupwara, Sopore and Bandipora.

In 2020 alone, over 170 youths joined militants' ranks.

This steady inflow of new recruits from previously uncharted areas have kept the militants' numbers steady, despite the casualty count in engagement with government forces going up.

As per a report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), last year 225 militants were killed compared to the 157 in 2019. In 2021, at least eight militants had been killed within the first two months, and the number nearly doubled by mid-March. Although the number of security force personnel getting killed in encounters has also increased in 2020; 33 personnel lost their lives as compared to 27 in 2019.

However, now the brief lull in insurgency and anti-government protests seems to have come to an end. Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Gurinder Pal Singh, said that in the southern Kashmir district of Kulgam, the situation remains as "bad as it was elsewhere."

" We have 14 militants active here, but the level of protests by stone-pelting youth has declined," said Gurinder.

There has also been an increase in the incidents of stone-pelting now across Kashmir in the past few months as the restrictions on account of COVID-19 pandemic have been eased. Recently on 3 April, police detained 10 people for " anti-India" protests and said that they tried to disrupt their operation in which 3 militants of Al Badr group were killed.

Last month, on 15 March, several youths were wounded in clashes with the security forces at Rawalpora area of south Kashmir's Shopian after they had gathered to disrupt the security forces operation to corner militants. At least 6 houses were gutted as two militants including a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) commander were killed in that incident.

Seven militants including Ansar Ghazwatul Hind chief killed in two gunfights in Kashmirs Shopian Pulwama

Locals clashed with security forces during the operation because the mosque where the militants were holed up suffered damages during gunfight. Photo by Junaid Gulzar

In Friday's encounter, while the number of militants killed in a single day was highest in this year, fierce resistance from locals was also witnessed. Residents of Shopian, the main encounter site for Friday's operations, said that the clashes were mild on Thursday when the gunfight began but the situation became intense as the people learnt that a mosque was damaged during the gunfight in the area.

Several youths were wounded in the clashes with the government forces while the walls of the mosque from which the militants had engaged in the gunfight with forces were riddled with bullet holes and its windows had also been broken.

Hilal Ahmad, a local resident, said that the youth demonstrated against the damage to the mosque caused by the firing by government forces. "We stayed awake during the night as the firing continued intermittently. The forces fired pellets on the youth and several people were injured," he said.

Inspector General of police, Vijay Kumar, however, told reporters that militants who had been firing from inside the mosque didn't surrender despite repeated calls and they didn't use " any IED, explosive, rocket launcher" in the operation. He said that the police and the army followed all the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it was ensured that there was no disrespect to the place of worship.

" Keeping in view the sanctity of mosque, the joint team exercised maximum restraint and didn’t use any kind of IED, heavy arms or other explosive substance. Even troops didn’t enter the mosque. Security forces only launched tear smoke shells inside the mosque. In view of this scenario, the operation was suspended for night hours, but the cordon remained intact in and around the encounter site" added a police spokesperson.

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