Srinagar: In the 90s, the relatives of separatist leaders taking up guns was all too common. But Junaid Sehrai, 29, the top Hizbul Mujahideen commander killed Tuesday, was the only relative of top Hurriyat leadership to join militancy in the last decade.
His father is the Tehreek-Hurriyat chairman Ashraf Sehrai.
Sehrai and another Hizbul militant, Tariq Sheikh, were killed in a 12-hour gun-battle with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) at the Nawakdal area in Srinagar.
A senior police officer described Sehrai’s killing as “yet another blow to the Hizbul Mujahideen”.
The encounter, however, sparked violent clashes between protesters and security forces throughout the day even as mobile and internet services remained suspended. Nearly a dozen houses were gutted in the operation that began at nearly 2:30 am Tuesday. Several other houses and vehicles parked in the narrow alleys of the locality were also damaged in the encounter.
The Hurriyat leader’s son who joined Hizbul in 2018
Sehrai joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 2018, days after his father took over the reins of the prominent separatist group Tehreek-e-Hurriyat. Sehrai had completed masters in Business Administration from Kashmir university and was working in a private firm in Srinagar before he took up arms. Originally from the frontier town of Kupwara, Sehrai had been staying at Srinagar’s Baghat area for the past two decades.
Senior security officials said Sehrai joined Hizbul at a time of rebellion in the militant outfit after former commander Zakir Musa attempted to change the character of the group — from a pro-Pakistan stance to fighting for a global caliphate.
Musa, inspired by Al Qaeda, later floated his own outfit, the Ansar-ul-Gazwat-ul-Hind, taking with him a handful of Hizbul militants.
“Sehrai joining the outfit was more symbolic rather than an operational advantage. The son of a senior Hurriyat leader joining the outfit helped its commanders, especially Riyaz Naikoo, to rein in Musa’s rebellion,” said a senior police officer.
Sehrai survived in the outfit for over two years but was not given any major responsibility as he was considered junior in ranks. Recently, however, he was made a divisional commander, police claimed in a statement today.
According to multiple sources in the J&K police department, Sehrai was being tailed for several weeks after officials managed to intercept mobile phones used by the slain militant.
“Two days ago the suspected mobile number got activated in south Srinagar,” a police source said. “It is likely that the militants had come to Srinagar for a meeting. We do not think they had plans to carry out attacks or establish bases in Srinagar. We only recovered two weapons from them.”
A J&K police official and a CRPF trooper were injured in the encounter.
According to police data, Sehrai is among the 22 Hizbul militants killed this year. The data states that over 70 militants have been killed so far this year, with the rest belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant outfits in J&K including the newly floated The Resistance Front (TRF).
“It is unlikely that Sehrai’s killing or image could prompt major militant recruitment of youth from Srinagar or in Kupwara where his family originally belongs. However, because he was very well known and the son of a senior Hurriyat leader, such threats cannot be taken lightly,” said another counter-insurgency official.
According to the CRPF, a search operation began at 2:15 am after security forces received information about the presence of two to three militants in the area. Security forces surrounded the entire locality; the exchange of fire began a couple of hours later and continued until Tuesday afternoon.
In the ensuing gunfight nearly nearly 12 houses were gutted while several other homes sustained heavy damages too. Locals accused security forces of vandalising and looting their homes in the garb of carrying out the operation, a charge denied by senior police officials.
“At around 2:30 am, the forces arrived and took positions in several houses that surrounded the one where they said the militants were housed. The residents were asked to leave and soon firing began,” said Bilal Ahmed, a local resident. “Not only the house which they said was being used by militants was pounded by ammunition, several other homes were also fired upon. Nearly a dozen homes have been lost in the fire that ensued.”
When ThePrint visited the locality, firefighters were on spot trying to douse the raging fires.
“One of the militants was killed in the house. The second one got injured in the firefight and was trying to take a different position,” sources said. “He was tracked by sniffer dogs after which security forces aimed their fire towards his position.”
Three women residents accused the forces of looting cash, jewellery and even laptops. “We had recently bought a new laptop from our hard earned money and they took that as well,” said one of the women. A second woman said, “Everything of value in my home is gone. What will I do, where will my family go”.
Speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, police officials denied the allegations. J&K DGP Dilbag Singh, when contacted to seek a comment on the allegations, did not respond to calls or messages sent to him by this correspondent.