Top Hizbul commander Riyaz Naikoo killed in encounter
Riyaz Naikoo, 35, a top terrorist of the Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter with security forces at his village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, officials said on Wednesday, announcing a major breakthrough that is expected to weaken the home-grown terror group significantly.
Naikoo, who carried a Rs 12 lakh reward on his head, was among four militants killed in Pulwama after security forces launched three separate, coordinated operations in a 25km radius on Tuesday night and early Wednesday after inputs that the Hizbul operational commander could be hiding in the area. People familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity that according to inputs Naikoo was visiting his family on Tuesday; he is believed to have stayed overnight at a hideout in Awantipora’s Gulzarpora Beighpora village.
Naikoo, also known as Zubair ul Islam and Bin Qasim, who emerged as the face of the Hizbul in the Valley and propagated radicalism through audio and video messages on social media — much like his predecessor Burhan Wani — and another terrorist were shot dead after a five-hour gunfight.
According to a statement by the police, Naikoo was involved in the killings of civilians including truck drivers and policemen. Among Kashmir’s new generation of terrorists, he effectively used the social media for recruitment. The people familiar with the matter said that in June, he would have completed eight years as a terrorist with the Hizbul Mujahideen.
The people added that the Kashmir Police’s anti-militancy unit, Special Operations Group, knew he was going to be in the village and also that he was going to spend the night there. Late on Tuesday itself, a contingent of J&K Police and troopers from the 21 Rashtriya Rifles surrounded the village. They launched their operation in the early hours of Wednesday. A firefight ensued. When it was over, the terrorist and his associate were found in the bunker. Both died of gunshot wounds. “It is a major success for the security forces in Kashmir,” a senior J&K police officer said on condition of anonymity.
The police statement said Naikoo was involved in the killing of a panchayat sarpanch’s father, Haji Ghulan Mohd Dar, in 2014, that of head constable Ashiq Hussain Mir, and more recently, the murder of migrant workers and truck drivers.
Authorities suspended mobile internet and SMS services soon after the encounter, fearing the circulation of provocative messages following the death of the local terrorist leader and an overall deterioration in law and order situation. Additional security forces were deployed in the four districts of Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam and Anantnag, considered the hotbed of militancy.
After the July 2016 encounter killing of Hizbul leader Wani, a resident of Tral area in Pulwama, stone-pelting mobs descended on streets and clashed with security forces, resulting in the deaths of 75 civilians and two law enforcement personnel in four months in one of the most turbulent phases in militancy in Kashmir, according to official data. But several media reports put the death toll much higher.
Officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Naikoo’s body might not be handed over to his family and could be buried in another district to avoid crowds and to ensure adherence to social distancing norms in place due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.
The successful operation came just four days after the killing of five security men, including the Commanding Officer of a Rashtriya Rifles battalion and a Major, during an encounter in north Kashmir’s Handwara. Two terrorists of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, too, were killed in the gunfight.
Since March 21, over 30 terrorists have been killed in 15 gun battles across the Valley. Twenty security personnel lost their lives in these encounters.
A police spokesperson confirmed the killing of Naikoo, though the army said it will not reveal the names of those gunned down.
Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand said: “The security forces are the heroes who eliminated four terrorists in 24 hours. We shall not glorify the terrorists by releasing their names.”
Two more terrorists were killed in Sharali Khrew, 12km from Naikoo’s village, a senior police officer who was part of the operation said, requesting anonymity. An overground worker was arrested at the third operation site, Sathura Tral.
Officials said the operation to track down Naikoo began at least two days ago. The army and the police even brought earth-digging equipment, including four JCB machines, to Naikoo’s village after inputs that the wanted terrorist could be using an underground hideout, according to villagers.
Soon after the news of the operation surfaced, youngsters started pelting stones at security forces. Eleven people were injured in the scuffle.
As security forces surrounded six-seven houses in the village, they came under fire from Naikoo and his associate. An encounter ensued, and both the terrorists were shot dead.
The other militant killed with Naikoo was believed to be Adil Ahmed of Panzan village in Pulwama district. He was active for the past two years. His identity was not confirmed by the police or government authorities who also chose not to divulge details of the two others killed on Wednesday.
Experts said the operation could be a major boost for security forces. “Leadership decapitation is always a big blow to terror organisations. There is both a physical dimension of an organisation suddenly losing someone who was in control and also the psychological dimension of the effect on morale and having to find a replacement,” said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd).