The spectre of staged encounters for monetary benefits resurfaced to haunt the army in Kashmir on Friday with the exhumation of three bodies in Kupwara, "who were passed off as militants by the army on April 30". Three families from a Rafiabad village Nadihaal, however, have claimed the slain youth as their relatives, gone missing after they went with an ex-Special Police Officer (SPO) "in touch with the army".
The state government has initiated a magisterial probe into the alleged killing of the three youth in the encounter at Sonapindi area, in Machhil sector of Kupwara district; the encounter area is adjacent to the Line of Control and is more than 90 km north of Srinagar.
Three youth --- identified as Shahzad Ahmed (27), Riyaz Ahmad (22) and Mohammad Shafi (23) of village Nadihaal of Rafiabad area --- went missing on April 27, according to the families.
"I and Saahbaa (nick name of Shahzad at home) were at home on that day. My son told me he is leaving with Bashir. Since then he never returned," said Shahzad's mother.
She claimed one of the villagers, also a friend of Shahzad, saw her son boarding a Sumo vehicle with its number mud-covered at Ladoosa towards Handwara area with Bashir, "who worked for the army in the area".
"Later, I saw pictures in newspapers. Police also showed us snaps where I identified the clothes my son was wearing that day," said Shahzad's mother.
All the three families had lodged a missing report with the Sopore police station. "On May 30, the families lodged a missing report with us. Later, on May 10, they identified one person Bashir, who accompanied them that day," said SDPO Sopore Harmeet Singh.
The police picked up three people - identified as ex-SPO Bashir Ahmad, Hameed and Abbas, who works with Territorial Army --- in the case. After recording their statement, the police have lodged a murder case against a Major and the army's Rajput unit.
The Rajput unit on April 30 claimed to have killed three militants in a bid to stop an infiltration attempt by militants. The unit was later shifted out of the area.
After the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah's intervention, the army has assured "a fast-track inquiry immediately after the police file a report in the incident".
"A fast track enquiry will be instituted to ascertain the facts. In case any wrongdoing comes to lights, expeditious action to bring guilty to book will be taken," an army spokesman said in Srinagar.
A team --- headed by Kupwara district commissioner and accompanied by senior police officer, three doctors, relatives --- exhumed the bodies for post-mortem from three graves in Kalaroos area in Kupwara district.
"After the post-mortem, the bodies were handed over to their relatives for final rites," said district Commissioner Showkat Mir. The government has been paying cash reward of Rs 2 lakh for killing of each militant to police or armed forces involved in the operation. Whether the army unit claimed Rs 6 lakh for killing the "militants" remained the mystery.
"These boys were told that they will be earning money for a work to be done with the army," said a Nadihaal villager, pleading not to be quoted with his name.
The army had claimed to have recovered five AK-47 rifles on the day of encounter from the three "unidentified militants". The government has been paying cash reward of Rs 2 lakh for killing of each militant to Police or armed forces involved in the operation. It's not known if the army unit has claimed the reward money or not.
The alleged killings of the civilians have come just a month after a 70-year-old beggar was passed off as a militant in Handwara by the army on April 14.