Srinagar: One of the civilians killed in the encounter at Hyderpora in Srinagar often had tea, watched cricket matches with CRPF personnel who frequented the area, eyewitnesses have told ThePrint.
According to eyewitnesses, businessman Altaf Bhatt owned a shop along the highway that ran right by Hyderpora.
“I have known Bhatt sahib for the last 30 years. Even people in the CRPF and police know him because his shop is on the main highway and he often had visitors from the security forces,” a shopkeeper in the area told ThePrint. “He would often serve them tea and food. Sometimes they watched cricket matches together. Will he be that big a fool to harbour terrorists inside a shop on the main road? This is nothing but murder.”
According to eyewitnesses, Altaf Bhatt and another civilian, Dr Mudassir Ahmad, were taken away by police to “accompany them to locate the militants”. They were later announced dead by the police in the encounter.
While police admit that they led Bhatt and Ahmad to the site, they added that the duo were killed in the crossfire during a shootout with militants holed up in a building that Bhatt owned. Ahmad, the police said, was a tenant in the building.
The encounter began at 4:30 pm on 15 November when personnel from Jammu and Kashmir Police, Indian Army and the Central Reserve Police Force reached the market area of Hyderpora, wearing pherans, cordoned off the area and started searching the premises, by holding up shopkeepers, their staff, workers and even customers, eyewitnesses in the area recalled.
The police claimed they had intelligence inputs about “presence of terrorists in the area” and everyone across a dozen shops in the 200 m radius were held up inside a hospital in the area and a Royal Enfield showroom. It is from this group that Altaf Bhatt and Dr Mudassir Ahmad were led away.
“At around 6:30 pm we heard gunshots for about 30 to 40 seconds. After that everything fell silent for the next four-and-a-half hours,” the shopkeeper quoted above said. “The people were let out at 12 midnight after the operation came to an end. It was only the next day we found that both Dr Mudassir and Altaf Bhatt were killed in that encounter.”
After the encounter, the bodies of the alleged terrorists and the two civilians were buried quickly by the police in Handwara, which is 70 km away. This was followed by a protest by the family members of three men — Dr Mudassir, Ahmad Bhatt and Amir — who demanded their bodies. Protests across Kashmir forced the police to exhume the bodies of Dr Mudassir and Ahmad Bhatt Thursday for a proper burial by the family.
On Thursday, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha also said there would be a magisterial inquiry into the encounter, with a report to be submitted in 15 days.
‘Took them to show suspected militant hideout’
In an official statement, the police claimed that they had “specific inputs about the presence of terrorists in an illegal call centre rented for business in a private building in Hyderpora, following which an operation was planned”.
The police admitted that they took Dr Mudassir and Bhatt with them, “to show the suspect call centre in the building”.
“The owner of the building namely Altaf Ahmad as well as the tenant namely Mudassir Ahmad were called to accompany the search party. But as the search party approached a room on the top floor of the building, the hiding terrorists started firing indiscriminately towards the party which retaliated,” the police said in a statement.
“However, in the initial exchange of fire, both the individuals accompanying the search party received critical gunshot injuries and succumbed to their injuries. In the ensuing encounter, both the terrorists hiding in the room were eliminated and their bodies were retrieved from the site of encounter,” the statement said.
The killed terrorists, police said, were identified as Haider, a Pakistani terrorist, and his alleged associate Amir Ahmad.
Police also claimed that Amir, a resident of Banihal, earlier worked as an over ground worker (OGW) of an LeT commander.
The police also said that Dr Mudassir Ahmad was running an “illegal call centre in the said building rented for business and was working as a terrorist associate”, but did not comment on the involvement of Ahmad Bhatt.
The police claimed that “incriminating materials, arms and ammunition including two pistols, three magazines, six mobile phones” were recovered from the encounter. They added that the call centre had six cabins, along with six computers, six CPUs “working network, with various virtual numbers of foreign numbers, dairies with alpha, beta, gamma codes, 1 US map, and other equipment”.
‘Used him as a human shield’
The relatives of the victims, however, alleged that they had been used as human shields.
Speaking to ThePrint, Saima Bhatt, niece of Altaf Bhatt, said, “His shop is on the highway, from where the convoys pass through very often. Moreover, there is so much deployment in that area on a daily basis. Why would he harbour any militant at that location? They have used my uncle as a human shield, which they had no right doing.”
Bhatt’s 12-year-old daughter Nyfa Bhatt is angered at the fact that her father was termed as a “terror associate”.
“They used him as a human shield to face the bullets and then termed him as a militant? I want to ask, why did those men kill my father? Why did they not give him a bullet proof jacket if he was taken to accompany the search party? Then after he died, they buried him like any other militant without even giving us a chance to look at his face? Who will answer these questions?” she asked.
Rafiya Altaf, wife of Dr Mudassir, too wants the police to wash away the “militant associate” tag from his name.
“He is now dead. But what about my children? My youngest son is five years old. If they have to grow with this, what will happen to their future? Which school or college will take them?” she asked.
Police are now saying that they are still investigating the “involvement” of the two civilians with the militants.
“Investigation has revealed that Dr Mudassir Ahmad facilitated the escape of Amir (who was also killed) from said spot to this rented location in an Alto-800 car, after an attack. Moreover, we have digital evidence in the case that has been sent to Delhi and Chandigarh FSL for further examination,” a source said. “We should wait for the facts to come out.”
“We are also investigating all aspects like where all these militants had built the hideouts, these call centers. The devices that have been seized from the location are also being analysed,” the source added.
The postmortem reports of the two civilians are awaited.
This report has been updated to correct the name of Altaf Bhatt’s daughter.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)