Naranag, Ganderbal: Over the last 10 days, a massive Army operation against a group of recently infiltrated militants has kept security forces and the entire Kashmir region on edge.
Paratroopers had to be airdropped in the mountains of Gangabal in the Naranag region in northern Kashmir to combat the militants. Two militants have so far been killed, but their identities have not been confirmed by the authorities yet.
However, the main cause of concern for the security forces is not only finding the militants who managed to escape the raging gun battle in the jungles, but also keeping an eye on insurgency routes militants traditionally use to cross over into the Kashmir Valley.
The ridges in the Ganderbal district of north Kashmir have been tense since 27 September, the day the Army received inputs that a group of militants had managed to enter the Valley through the Gurez region.
The infiltration, security forces officers said, might have happened through the Tulail Valley, which is a four-day hike northwards from Gangabal.
The gun battle started that very day, prompting heavy and immediate deployment of armed forces in the ridges.
Although officials maintain that none of the security forces personnel involved in the operation have been injured or killed, there is speculation that there have been casualties on both sides — described as a “baseless rumous” by Ganderbal’s superintendent of police Khaleel Pozwal.
However, the officials do describe the operation as “intense”, given the treacherous landscape of the region. Paratroopers had to be dropped at strategic locations in the jungle as well as near the Army camp. Locals said choppers made at least 20-25 trips to drop the troopers. Two paratroopers who were posted in the area confirmed that the airdrops took place to counter the militants.
Army officials posted in the region told ThePrint that the militants were intercepted while walking towards their destination, somewhere in south Kashmir. The route on which the militants were intercepted leads to the Tral area in south Kashmir, which is said to be the epicentre of homegrown militancy in the Valley.
“Another seven hours and the militants might have been in south Kashmir,” said a police officer who did not wish to be identified.
The militant and the ‘exfiltrator’
Army and police officials said two of the militants had been killed — the first on 27 September, and the second two days later. Bodies of the militants were recovered on 30 September.
Along with weapons and essential food items, Pakistani currency is said to have been recovered from the bodies of the killed militants, one of whom is being described as a suspected “exfiltrator”. Police believe the exfiltrator was an individual from Sopore who had travelled to Pakistan last year and had now returned to the Valley as a militant and an insurgent guide.
The youth had allegedly travelled to Pakistan through the Attari-Wagah border, and had been missing for over a year.
“His family came to know about his killing when a relative currently outside the state saw his photograph being shared on social media as a martyr,” said a senior police officer.
The police said DNA samples from the body as well as the family had been taken, and after a match, the family’s request to hand over the body could be granted.
Doctors had to trek for autopsy
On 30 September, three days after the first gun battle, local residents from Naranag were hired by the Army to carry the bodies of the slain militants that were lying near the river that passes via Churnar Valley and cuts through the Ganderbal district.
The locals were then asked to dig graves for the two militants and perform the last rites, not far from the jungle where the encounter took place.
“Around five men were accompanied by Army men to the spot of the encounter. The two militants were wearing long leather boots and Khan dresses. We can’t say for sure if they were locals or from Pakistan, but the Army told us they suspected these men were not from Kashmir,” said a Naranag local who refused to be identified.
Another local, also on condition of anonymity, said police accompanied another 10 men when the body of the second militant was located. “Both of them had to be carried on foot. It was raining a lot and we had to cover a lot of distance towards the Army camp. It took us a day to carry each one of them. The army paid us Rs 650,” said the second local.
The militants’ post-mortem was conducted by doctors of the Ganderbal hospital, who had to trek to the Army camp located deep in the mountains of Gangabal. Bad weather prevented the Army from carrying the doctors as well the forensics team to the spot in a chopper — a fact corroborated by the hospital administration, police and Army officials posted in the area.
“The two doctors had to go there on foot. We didn’t understand the urgency but they told us they had to conduct the post-mortem. A team of six people from the hospital, which included the two doctors, were dispatched. The doctors fell sick when they returned — they spent almost two nights in the mountains,” said a hospital administration staff member.
When ThePrint visited the residence of one of the doctors Sunday, his family said he had left the house for some work.
‘Ganderbal is militant-free’
According to senior police and Army officers posted in the area, the operation has “almost concluded”, though a massive combing exercise is still underway to find the militants who might have escaped the site.
Police officers said they suspected at least one militant might be on the run in the jungles, but did not deny the possibility of more. However, they insisted that Ganderbal district continues to be a militant-free zone.
“There was only one active militant who was arrested. The last encounter that took place here was back in 2014. There are no resident militants and reports of militant sighting after verification were found to be mere exaggerations and rumours,” said a senior police officer on the condition of anonymity.
However, there is concern over the fact that the Gangabal route has been activated, though officers say militants attempting to infiltrate into Kashmir using it might be deterred by the gun battle.