Anantnag encounter setback in run-up to local elections
This is the second major terror attack on security forces in south Kashmir in two months; on August 4, three soldiers of the 34 Rashtriya Rifles were attacked in Halan forest in neighbouring Kulgam district
The encounter with Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists in Anantnag district of south Kashmir, once a militancy hotbed, that claimed the lives of two army officers and a Jammu and Kashmir Police DSP on Wednesday has come as a setback to the administration’s assurance of restoring normalcy in the Valley, particularly in the run-up to the panchayat and urban local body elections next month.
Colonel Manpreet Singh, the commanding officer of 19 Rashtriya Rifles, Major Ashish Dhonchak, also from the same battalion, and deputy superintendent of police Humayun Muzamil Bhat made the supreme sacrifice after they came under heavy fire in the Garol forest near Kokernag.
This is the second major terror attack on security forces in south Kashmir in two months. On August 4, three soldiers of the 34 Rashtriya Rifles were attacked by terrorists in the Halan forest in neighbouring Kulgam district. The terrorists behind that attack are believed to be both from the Valley and across the border. They are still at large.
Police officials said that the Garol attack could have been a similar ambush with the terrorists taking advantage of the tough terrain and darkness. The back-to-back attacks are a reminder that militancy is still active in south Kashmir and capable of inflicting damage despite the J&K administration’s claims to the contrary. The fact that a local militant Ujair Khan, who has joined the Lashkar-e-Toiba ranks, is reported to be behind the Anantnag attack underlines the apprehensions that local youth are still getting recruited in terror outfits.
‘Precautions should have been taken’
A senior officer who has commanded a battalion in Kashmir termed the loss of three officers as “very sad”. He said, “Most of the time, our officers lead from the front. The commanding officer of the battalion is involved in the formation of strategy of any operation. In this case also, the officers led from the front. However, since the operation was taking place in a forest, there should have been more precautions as they were approaching a militant hideout in the dark. The militants had the advantage of terrain and darkness. There is a need for investigation so that precautions can be taken in future operations.”
Another officer, who has taken part in encounters in dense forests, said officers lead from the front in such operations. “Terrorism is almost finished, but a few terror groups survive in some pockets. They will be neutralised soon,” he said.
Terrorists take forest cover
The attack has raised a question mark on the administration’s claims that record tourist footfall of 1.32 crore this year is a sign of the return of normalcy in the Valley.
Garol village is located on the foothills of the Pir Panjal range and the extended forest connects Kulgam in Kashmir with Kishtwar in the Jammu belt. The terrorists could easily head towards the forest in neighbouring Shopian district from where they have access to Poonch and Rajouri in the Jammu region.
DGP vows to wipe out militancy
J&K director general of police Dilbag Singh had only recently said in Sopore that Jammu and Kashmir was becoming a terror-free region and the focus would be on cracking down on drug smuggling. He had added that the number of active militants was at an all-time low and militancy was on the verge of being wiped out. “We will make efforts to finish off the remaining militants,” he had said.
The two recent encounters come over two years since such a heavy casualty was inflicted on the army. In May 2020, the commanding officer of 21 RR, a major, two soldiers and a police sub-inspector were killed in an encounter at Changimul village in Kupwara district. Two militants were also killed in the operation.
South of Pir Panjal remains a hotbed
While the Valley has seen a relatively long lull in terror attacks, Rajouri and Poonch districts, situated south of Pir Panjal mountain range in Jammu region, have emerged as a hotspot of terror attacks. In last two years, army has lost 25 soldiers in these districts located on the Line of Control that share a hilly and forested terrain.
“Pakistan has been focusing on Jammu region, especially on Rajouri and Poonch, for the past two years,” says J&K’s former director general of police SP Vaid.
Terrorists trained in guerilla warfare use the terrain to their advantage. After army’s “operation all-out” that started in 2017, the terrorists shifted their strategy of living in towns and villages.
“Terrorists have now changed their strategy. They attack security forces and return to their hideouts in jungles. Their survival for months together in caves is not possible without local support. That support also needs to be neutralised,” says Vaid.
Officials in the security establishment, however, felt that holding urban local bodies’ polls in October or November would not be a major challenge for the administration. Elections were conducted even during peak militancy and this spike in Rajouri and Poonch will not have a major impact on the polls, says a home department official.
However, senior police officers say that the security forces have to remain prepared for a long haul with Pakistan because of its “anti-India” policy.
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma ( retd) said that army, along with other security forces, needs to dominate north and south of Pir Panjal range to keep the pressure on terrorists. “They need to work cohesively. While forces have to maintain a tight surveillance on the LoC in Rajouri and Poonch, we cannot afford to let terrorists from Kashmir escape to south of Pir Panjal,” he says.
He emphasised the deploying more spotters, cut-outs and dogs, besides increasing technological interventions to eliminate “residual” terrorists.
According to the director general of police Dilbag Singh, around nine to 12 foreign terrorists were still active in Rajouri and Poonch districts, who keep shuffling between Kulgam-Shopian and Rajouri-Poonch.