Well-trained terrorists, the challenging terrain, dense forests and inclement weather have all played a role in the encounter in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag stretching into the fourth day on Saturday.
Three officers, Colonel Manpreet Singh and Major Aashish Dhonchak of the 19 Rashtriya Rifles and Deputy Superintendent Himayun Bhat of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, have been killed in action, a soldier is missing and at least two more personnel have been injured.
The terrorists are hiding in a cave atop a hill in the Gadul forests of Kokernag, which affords them protection as well as complete visibility of the actions of the joint Army and police team that has surrounded them. The narrow path leading to the cave, which offers no cover and has a sheer drop on one side, is what had cost the three personnel their lives as the team began their first offensive in the early hours of Wednesday.
Drones, rocket launchers and mortar shells have all been used, but the forces have not been able to achieve domination of the area yet. Officials say they are confident of neutralising the terrorists at the earliest.
What has the establishment worried, however, is that this is one of three encounters in Jammu and Kashmir in five days and comes amid an uptick in terrorist activity in the Pir Panjal region, which covers the Poonch and Rajouri districts. Former Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police SP Vaid said the Anantnag encounter points to yet another change in strategy by terrorists and their backers in Pakistan.
Highly placed sources have told NDTV that the forces first got intelligence about terrorists hiding in the Gadul forests on Tuesday night and, on learning that they were atop a hill, a decision to attack was taken in the early hours of Wednesday.
“The path the forces have to take to get to the top of the hill is quite challenging. It is very narrow and there are mountains and a dense forest on one side and a deep ditch on the other. The personnel began the ascent in the night, and the darkness made it worse,” said a source.
Seeing the forces ascend, the terrorists began firing at the personnel, who found themselves cornered. This is when the three officers were injured, but the limited options for extraction meant that they could not be taken to a hospital until morning.
According to the sources, the terrorists have adequate stocks of arms, ammunition and even food, which is evidenced by the fact that they have managed to hold out for nearly 90 hours. They said the number of terrorists is also likely to be more than the two-three that is being mentioned in most reports.
A recent Lashkar-e-Taiba recruit, Uzair Khan, is among the terrorists holed up in the cave. He is believed to know the area very well and the terrorists are benefiting from this.
“Ordinary terrorists cannot stretch an encounter for so long. They are very well-trained and have good weapons. It is also possible that an informer may have double-crossed the forces or someone may have leaked their movements,” said a source.
Rain, And A Fire
Bursts of heavy rain since Saturday morning have made the operation more difficult both by reducing visibility and by making it harder for drones to operate. A fire also broke out near the cave where the terrorists are hiding.
Two terrorists were gunned down in a two-day encounter in Rajouri district’s Narla area, which began on Tuesday, and three were killed in the Uri sector of Baramulla when they were attempting to cross into India from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The Army said Pakistani forces gave covering fire to help the terrorists cross the Line of Control and the gunfire from the other side also “interfered” with their efforts to retrieve the body of the third terrorist.
The Baramulla encounter makes it the forces’ third brush with terrorists in just five days.
On the encounter in Anantnag, former Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police SP Vaid told NDTV, “The operation in Anantnag is taking place in a hilly area and there is a 75-80 degree steep climb. There is a dense forest on one side and a ditch on the other. It is very difficult for our forces when the terrorists hide in such a place. The terrorists are at a height and the personnel become vulnerable to attack when they try to ascend.”
“This seems to be a new strategy. A similar thing was also seen in Rajouri-Poonch recently, where the terrorists chose a hilly and forested area to hide in. For some time now, I have been noticing that the terrorists have been changing their strategy on the instructions of the Pakistani establishment,” he said.
Mr Vaid pointed out that when the Indian security forces began Operation All Out in 2017, thousands of terrorists were killed and they also began facing a shortage of AK-47s. He said there was a change in policy then and the terrorists started using pistols and small arms to target migrants, labourers and panchayat members in Kashmir in a bid to derail development. There had been a spate of such incidents last year.
Seeking international attention?
“When the forces managed to control that, a new trend is visible now, which was seen in Rajouri-Poonch and now in nearby Anantnag. Unlike in the past, terrorists are avoiding inhabited areas, where they can be easily surrounded, and are now hiding in thick jungles and hilly areas. This helps them draw out the forces and harm them, and the terrain gives them a chance to escape,” the former top cop said.
“They are trying to drag out encounters for three to four days so that they can get the international media’s attention as well. I think there has been a change in the strategy and we will have to be prepared for it,” he added.