Shopian encounter: Yasin Yatoo's death has cost Hizbul Mujahideen one of it's last 'moderate' voices

The Shopian district in south Kashmir witnessed the first encounter operation in fifteen months on Saturday evening. Seven  to eight militants were about to hold a meeting inside a residential house in Awneera village of the district when security forces surrounded the locality, the police said.

As the forces zeroed in on the location, the militants opened fire on the security forces killing two Indian army soldiers. It took the security forces some time to retrieve the dead bodies of Sepoy Ilayaraja P of Tamil Nadu and Sepoy Gawai Sumedh Waman of Maharashtra in the pitch dark.

In the overnight gun battle, the army managed to kill three militants but sources said that many other militants were able to flee from the spot. Two civilians were also killed in the aftermath.

After 20 hours of operation, two militants were immediately identified but the Jammu and Kashmir Police struggled to identify the dead body of the third person killed in the encounter. Failing to reach a conclusion on the identity of the slain militant, the police then took a closer look at the colour of the deceased's hair and the weapon, a KK rifle, that he was carrying. By Sunday evening the police was sure that the slain militant's physical appearance closely resembled with one of the longest surviving militants in Kashmir Valley, according to police officials involved in the operation.

His name was Yaseen Yatoo, who went by the nom de guerre Mahmoud Ghaznavi and Mansoor.

 Shopian encounter: Yasin Yatoos death has cost Hizbul Mujahideen one of its last moderate voices

File image of slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Yaseen Yatoo

Who was Yaseen Yatoo?

Yatoo, a tall burly man with a round face and aged features,  was often spotted in military fatigues in pictures and videos shared on social media. However, the forty-year-old's journey from a second year college student in Amar Singh college in Srinagar in 1996 — when he first crossed over to Pakistan for arms training — to becoming one of the most wanted militant commanders is like a thriller straight out of a Hollywood film.

There was a funeral in absentia offered for him in his village Nagam, Budgam as he was thought to be dead. The Hurriyat paid rich tributes to him and the militant organization Hizbul Mujahideen released a statement claiming he was killed when he fell from a mountain while on “operational duties.” But Yatoo, senior police officials said, faked his own death to divert attention and mysteriously disappeared.

When Yatoo's pictures appeared on social media showing him reading Quran, an assault rifle rested beside him, it took his family some time to realize their son was still alive.

“I thought he was dead but then the police called me one day and showed me his picture and I recognized him,” Habibullah, Yatoo’s father, said recently in a conversation with Firstpost.

“His hair and beard had turned gray, he looked weak in the photograph.”

The security forces had been coming down heavily on militants as the militancy intensified in Valley, inflicting massive casualty to both old and new ranks of militias in the terror groups active in the Valley. And finally on Saturday evening, the security forces managed to kill Yatoo, one of the longest surviving militants among the Hizbul Mujahideen cadres in Valley, apart from neutralizing two other militants.

“He was a chronic case... It is a big catch,” DIG south Kashmir SP Pani who had earlier arrested Yatoo, said on Sunday.

The DIG said that although the stone pelting incidents have gone down, compared to the scene in February and March, but unfortunately militants are opening fire after mingling with the civilian crowds. "This makes it an extremely difficult job to carry out counter insurgency operation,” the DIG said.

In the past 20 years of his activity in the Valley, he had been in and out of jail several times. He was arrested several times under the Public Safety Act (PSA), which provides for a person's arrest if he is perceived to be a threat to the maintenance of public order

Yatoo even quit militancy for a brief period but he took up arms again in 2002. He was arrested by the Border Security Force in November 2002 and subsequently released in June 2004. In March 2005, he again joined Hizbul Mujahideen. In June 2006, he was again arrested in Awantipora but was released in 2009. He was identified as A+ category militant .

The police said he was instrumental in reviving the militancy in both south and central Kashmir after the death of Burhan Wani last year in July. Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salah-ud-din had announced him as the successor to Wani but Zakir Musa stole the show.

Where does Yatoo's death leave Hizbul Mujahideen as a militant outfit?

Ahead of Wani’s first anniversary Yatoo, who was the operational commandeer of the outfit, stressed upon the need for people to have “faith in political and armed resistance leadership.” He indirectly challenged Musa for his Caliphate comments, cautioning him against trying to alter the “legal and historic nature” of Kashmir conflict.

“Any person, whosoever, challenges the legal and historic nature of Kashmir conflict is either living in a fool’s paradise or is unintentionally or intentionally playing into the hands of divisive elements,” Yatoo said in a video massage.

The Kashmir dispute, he said, has been “widely acknowledged” by the world community and it has “strong legal, geographical, international and diplomatic dimensions. So, the armed resistance leadership takes everything into consideration before devising any strategy.”

While appealing to people he said, “people are interpreting Islam and Quran out of context and misrepresenting Islamic history deliberately to suit their vested interests.”

This statement was a directly aimed at Musa for his comments on caliphate and threatening the Hurriyat leadership.

Now the only prominent face left with Hizbul Mujahideen is Reyaz Naikoo. “The man who was doing the balancing act between Musa and Naikoo is gone now,” a police official said.

“While Musa was pushing for Islamic Caliphate, Naikoo was doing the bidding of Pakistan, Yatoo was doing the balancing factor. Now who will do the containment from Hizbul Mujahideen's side? His death is a huge problem for Hizbul as he was one of the moderate leaders among the ranks and had chosen a middle ground. Who will contain the pro-Pakistan line in the organization remains to be seen.” The officer said.

Updated Date: Aug 14, 2017 11:00:57 IST