Srinagar: The two civilians — Dr Mudassir Gul, Altaf Ahmad Bhat — and an alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba overground worker, Amir Ahmed, who were killed in the controversial Hyderpora encounter in Srinagar earlier this month, did not “accompany” the security forces’ search party into the building in which they were shot dead, ThePrint has learnt.
The exchange of fire took place with the forces that were outside and had surrounded the building, a top security source told ThePrint, seeking to counter widespread allegations that this was a fake encounter in which innocent men had been killed.
The police had earlier claimed that the three had accompanied search parties on the lookout for terrorists in the building. But sources told ThePrint that the three “went inside alone with a phone in their hand to open the two rooms that were locked and were on video call with the operation head”.
According to the top source in the security establishment, the police and the Army did not fire a single bullet inside the building where Bilal Bhai, a suspected Pakistani terrorist, was allegedly hiding, and were in fact “monitoring the search from outside through the video call”.
The encounter, sources said, “happened at the main gate of the building”, when Amir, Altaf and Bilal Bhai were on their way out. When ThePrint visited the spot, however, while there were bullet marks on the windows on the first floor, there was no bullet mark, either on the rooms on the second floor, or the main gate and the shops adjacent to it, which were shut at that time.
Sources also claimed that Dr Mudassir Gul was not hit by a police bullet and his body was found on the second floor of the building, below the attic, where Bilal was hiding, much after the operation got over.
Sources added that in fact, the operation head had to bring in camera-mounted Army attack dogs to search for Mudassir’s body and be sure that there was no one else hiding in the building.
Police claim that the entire encounter is recorded in the CCTV cameras installed outside a TATA motors showroom right opposite the building, across the road and cameras inside the building.
While the police claimed that the three men were “not used as human shields” but voluntarily went inside while the security forces were outside, Altaf’s family questioned as to why would the police send three civilians inside a building in which they suspect that a terrorist was hiding. This, the family said, was no less than using humans as “baits”.
ThePrint pieces together what unfolded in the controversial Hyderpora encounter and how the four men including two civilians were killed.
Building was ‘safe’, police and army were to call off the operation
It was at around 5 pm on 15 November when personnel from the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Indian Army and the Central Reserve Police Force reached the market area of Hyderpora, following intelligence inputs about “presence of terrorists in the area”.
A cordon was laid and all shopkeepers were held in a showroom nearby, following which the police started searching the premises.
According to sources, in the first search carried out by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the personnel found the building to be “clear and safe”
On the ground floor, there are four to five shops, while on the first floor, there is one call centre, an office, a small rest room, a shop offering IT solutions and two washrooms. The office and the IT solutions shop had been locked but no one was found inside the building.
On the second floor there are three rooms, all of which were empty.
After that, the Army too went inside for another check. They also surveyed the premises and declared that the “building was safe”.
“We were about to call off the operation thinking that the input was false. Since both the police and Army had checked the building, the team was about to return,” a source said. “This is when the operational head said that the two rooms that were locked too should be opened and checked.”
According to the source, the head then asked the personnel to enquire about the owner of the building and the caretaker who would have the keys to those two rooms.
“We were told that Amir would have the keys. We had some information on Amir through our sources but didn’t know that he was the caretaker. Amir was then called,” the source said.
At around 6 pm, Altaf, the owner of the building, Mudassir, who had taken the first floor on rent, from where the suspected call centre was operating and Amir, who were also held with other shopkeepers during the cordon, were called to the building.
Sources said the three men were searched and Amir was asked to show his phone, since he did not have it in his pocket.
Amir told the officer concerned that he is not carrying his phone and that it must be inside the building. That is when the team became suspicious, the source said.
Interestingly, when the cordon was being laid, Amir was searched by the police but was let off after a police officer told his colleague that he knew him.
“We became suspicious when he said he does not have his phone. He then asked him to go inside and get it. We gave him a phone, put him on a video call, so that we can see what is inside and asked him to go inside and show us around and also show where his phone was lying,” the source said. “He went inside, showed us around but came back without his phone. He said he could not find it and that it must be inside one of the two locked rooms. That is what further strengthened our suspicion”
“Yes, Amir was let off initially as a policeman knew him from before and said he knows that he works at the building. He was, however, called back after we realised that he was the caretaker at the first floor, where Mudassir was running the call centre,” the source said.
‘Went inside voluntarily’
Sources said that while the search for Amir’s phone was on, Altaf, the owner of the building, asked Mudassir to come along with him, open the two rooms and get them checked for the “satisfaction of the security forces”.
“Altaf asked Mudassir to get the two rooms checked and get done with this search. He seemed certain that the building was clear,” the source said.
Mudassir was then taken on a video call and the three men went inside the building.
According to the source, Mudassir showed all the rooms on video call including his call center, the almirahs. He is also seen opening the locked rooms, in the CCTV cameras inside, a footage of which has been accessed by the police.
Just 10 minutes into the video call, Mudassir’s phone went off, the source said. This is when the personnel took position fearing that something must have gone wrong and Mudassir and others may have been “taken hostages” by terrorists hiding inside.
According to the source, an announcement was then made by the personnel from outside asking the three men to come out and after a silence of two minutes, there were two gunshots heard from the second floor at around 6:20 pm. It was already dark by then, the source said.
“There were two gunshots and after a pause, another gunshot. We all took position and just after five to six seconds, we saw someone moving on the first floor. We started firing. In a few seconds, we saw two men coming out from the entry gate. One man had a pistol in his hand and he was firing. That is when the operation began,” the source said.
“The families of the civilians may be claiming that they were used as human shields, but none of the personnel ever went inside the building, using them as a shield. They had gone inside voluntarily,” the source said.
Speaking to ThePrint, Altaf’s niece, Saima asked how the police sent three civilians inside the building, without any protective gear, to face a terrorist?
“How do you send three civilians inside without a protective gear knowing that there is a terrorist in the house. A common person who does not know anything about operations, how would he save himself if something goes wrong? Police may be claiming that they did not use the men as human shields, but using them as baits like this is worse and inhuman,” she said.
She also said that the eyewitnesses at the Royal Enfield showroom where all the shopkeepers were gathered had told them that Altaf and Mudassir were taken to the building thrice.
“If they went inside voluntarily then why are the eyewitnesses are saying that he was taken thrice inside the building? How did Altaf sustain injuries? Who will answer all these questions?” she asked.
‘Pak terrorist came out firing from pistol’
According to the source, the moment they saw “men coming out from the gate and one having a pistol”, they opened fire.
Amir was the first to die on the spot. Sources claimed he had a pistol in his hand. “Then, behind was Altaf, who was unarmed,” the source said, admitting that these are “operational hazards”.
“We heard gunshots. The firing began. The first person who came out of the building had a pistol, so we fired,” the source said. “Maybe Altaf, who was unarmed, was completely innocent and just got caught in the crossfire, but that would become clear only in the investigation. At the time when we fired, we were unable to identify anyone as it was dark. Once the men were dead, we found out that they were Amir and Altaf.” Within a few seconds of the first spate of firing when the two men got killed, Bilal Bhai, allegedly came out of the building firing indiscriminately using a pistol.
“He had such a good hold over the pistol that he was firing at personnel with AK–47s. He slipped out of the building and came on the road. He was gunned down and he fell just 20 m away from the building, on the road.”
His body was then taken to the PCR and Amir’s phone, which he had been searching for, was recovered from Bilal’s pocket, the source said.
Saima questioned the police’s actions. “We are talking about human lives here. What if they were coming out to save their lives from that terrorist? They came out only to get killed by police bullets,” she said. “Should they have not waited before firing? Should they have not tried to make arrests? Should saving lives not be the priority of the police?”
“And all this after the police and the Army knew that three civilians had been sent inside,” she added.
Camera-mounted attack dogs sent inside — Search for Mudassir
Following the encounter and death of three people — Bilal, Altaf and Amir — a search for Mudassir began. Since he did not come out of the building, the personnel thought that he may have been taken hostage inside by another foreign terrorist.
“Mudassir went inside the building but did not return. Moreover, we had heard gunshots from inside, so we thought maybe he has been taken hostage by another foreign terrorists hiding inside,” the source said.
Around 10 pm, a camera-mounted Army dog was sent inside the building. The dog which was being given instructions from outside was going around room to room and the Army was monitoring everything from outside, the source said.
When the dog reached the second floor, the body of Mudassir was seen through the camera, lying on the floor. The Army still did not move inside, thinking that many more armed men could be hiding inside.
“The dog with the camera went around for a half an hour more after spotting Mudassir’s body but no one else could be seen in the building. It appeared to be clear. However, to be doubly sure an attack dog of the Army was called in and sent inside,” the source said.
“The attack dogs are trained to pull out any living human being, who may be hiding,” the source said.
The attack dog also went inside, roamed around, but could not find anything. After the dog returned, a room intervention team went inside and it was around 12 midnight that Mudassir’s body was recovered.
“The teams then searched the place including the hideout on the second floor, the two rooms that were locked and then cleared the building. That is when the operation formally came to an end,” the source said.
Mudassir’s bullet wounds different, everything recorded on CCTV
While Mudassir’s family has claimed that he was used as a human shield, sources in the security establishment said that he did not die of a police bullet as his body was found by them on the second floor, much after the encounter ended. Moreover, the postmortem report of Mudassir also shows injuries on his face, suggesting he was beaten up before he was shot.
“Mudassir never came out of the building and had died much before. The bullet wounds in his body, the doctor has opined, are different from that of Amir, Altaf and Bilal, who died of police bullets,” the source said. “Mudassir’s autopsy also shows that he has some injuries on his right cheek that are indicative of a scuffle suggesting that he was beaten up. It is a possibility that he was beaten up by Bilal when he went inside with the phone on video call,” the source said.
The police source also said that they have digital evidence and footprints, including footage from CCTV cameras installed outside the TATA motors showroom, right opposite the encounter site, which has recorded everything that happened outside.
“Besides that, we have CCTV footage from inside when we sent Amir inside to look for his phone or when Altaf, Mudassir and Amir went inside together. The CCTV shows that neither the Army nor the police entered the building and no bullet was fired inside the building,” the source said.
The police are now awaiting the reports from the Forensic Science Laboratory, which they said would corroborate the said sequence of events.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)