Three security personnel have been killed by snipers in Kashmir since 18 October – one likely sighted with the help of the light of his phone screen.
New Delhi: Firing by militants on selective targets from a long distance — sniping — is the latest to add to the complexity of Kashmir’s insurgency.
For the first time in Kashmir’s 30 years of conflict, trained militants are suspected to be using sophisticated long-range weapons with night-vision devices and telescopic sights to take out security personnel — soldiers, sentries, paramilitary officers.
This year, 2018, has already seen a “hybrid insurgency” at play in Kashmir, marked by stone-pelters, an uptick in ceasefire violations along the Line of Control, kidnappings of family members of security personnel, and soldiers on leave being waylaid and shot in the head.
But the latest twist — stand-off fire — has added to concerns of the security establishment, not least because it threatens VIPs and targets the morale of the forces.
Police sources in the Valley have said there have been at least three instances — on 18, 25 and 27 October — of sniper fire taking out combatants.
The needle of suspicion is on the militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, led by fugitive leader Masood Azhar (who was released in 1999 after an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan).
Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) officer Rajendra Prasad, who was guarding a power station, was killed by stand-off fire Saturday.
On Thursday, a soldier of the 42 Rashtriya Rifles, Ngamsiamlliana, who was a sentry at an Army camp near Tral in south Kashmir, was killed similarly. That he was shot in the head is an indication of accuracy from stand-off distance.
On 21 October, Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) soldier Vijay Kumar was killed inside a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) while speaking to his family on a mobile phone. Police suspect that the sniper managed to target him at night because of the light emitted from the screen of his hand-held device.
“First time in 3 decades long story of insurgency we now have to contend with snipers taking out targets from long distance with deadly accuracy,” former Jammu & Kashmir chief minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweeted Sunday.
“We have dealt with snipers on the border/LoC regularly and have SOPs (standard operating procedures) to deal with these but never in hinterland,” he added. “This will force a rethink of all manner of security and protection procedures.”
The immediate response of police in the “rethink on security and protection procedures” has been that they will raise the heights of perimeter walls around soldiers’ camps.
Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat, meanwhile, said it would be “premature” to say snipers had arrived in the Valley.
“At night when our boys are standing at the post… at times they do use their mobile phones that produce light that is sufficient to engage a target,” he added, “There are some precautions we need to take but to say that snipers have come into the Valley is premature.”
“I believe in commenting when I have full evidence,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of the defence attache conclave.
“We have faced some casualties of security personnel who have been innocently carrying out duties on base protection,” he said, “There are terrorists who are engaging these people and have caused casualties to us. Now, these casualties… whether these have been done by snipers or not is something we are still studying.”
“To say that snipers have been infiltrated [is to be determined] because we have not recovered any sniper weapon,” he added.
“It’s only when we recover a sniper weapon, we are able to get some of these people, interrogate these people, and then we will be able to identify that there are active snipers,” he said.
“It will be difficult to comment that these are active snipers,” he added, “This could well be normal weapon system. You know that a rifle has a good range of 200-250 m.”
Trained to kill from a kilometre
Unverified photographs on social media, purportedly floated from Pakistan, show a bearded man in training on a sniper rifle at a camp in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
A chart behind the man says the rifle is of British origin. When fully assembled, it is five feet long (60 inches) with a folded butt. Its magazine carries five bullets of .50/12.7mm calibre each. Its range could be 2,000 metres or two km.
While the capabilities may be overstated for the purposes of militant propaganda, the inspector general of the Border Security Force (BSF), Ram Avtar, said insurgent snipers were capable of firing from a kilometre. But this would presume adequate training.
It takes months for even professional armies with sophisticated equipment to train snipers — in patience, accuracy and camouflage.
Reacting to the latest turn in the violence in the Valley, former Northern Army Commander and ThePrint columnist Lieutenant General H.S. Panag (Retired) pointed out: “A stand-off sniper attack is very old tactics. There is no perfect protective gear. The answer lies in better surveillance and tactics.”
The Army is likely to intensify patrolling by small teams to hunt down snipers. Soldiers deployed along the Line of Control are especially trained to work out of sniper range or evade stand-off fire and land mines.
Despite that, the Army takes casualties — the latest being a Lieutenant Colonel who was injured in a mine blast Sunday. It has begun supplying soldiers with modern helmets and bulletproof jackets this year.
This report has been updated with the quote of Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat.