Handwara gunfight, longest in recent years, ends

2 militants killed, another CRPF man succumbs | Death toll 8 | It was a complex operation, say police

A gunfight between militants and forces in Babagund hamlet of northern Handwara area ended on Sunday with the killing of two militants, even as a central reserve police force (CRPF) man injured in the encounter earlier succumbed at a hospital, taking the overall death toll to eight in the three-day-long operation, officials said.

Three Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel including an inspector-rank officer, two policemen, two militants and a civilian were killed in the 56-hour-long gun-battle while at least eight residential houses and three cowsheds suffered damage, an official said.

The slain civilian, identified as Waseem Ahmad Mir, 22, of SagiporaHandwara was killed when forces fired bullets and pellets on protesters near the encounter site on Friday, according to local residents.  Quoting a police spokesman in Srinagar, news agency PTI reported that bodies of both the militants were recovered from the site of the encounter and they were affiliated to the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

“One of the militants killed in the encounter has been identified as a foreigner from Pakistan, while the identity of the other is being ascertained”, the news agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

He said a CRPF man, Sham Narayan Singh Yadav, who was injured in the exchange of fire on Friday, succumbed to injuries on Sunday, taking the number of forces’ fatalities to five.

Two CRPF personnel—inspector Pintu and constable Vinod and two policemen, selection grade constables Naseer Ahmad and Ghulam Mustafa Barah, were killed in the gunfight on Friday, the spokesman said.

Deputy inspector general of police, north Kashmir range, SulaimanChowdhary said the operation was a “complex one” as it took place “in a congested area”.

“To avoid civilian casualties, the operation got overstretched and ended up after three days,” he said.

He said while the cordon-and-search operation was launched on Thursday midnight, the hiding militants opened fire on a search party of the forces, triggering an encounter.

“The gun-battle started on Thursday midnight after militants fired upon the search party. During the operation, civilians were evacuated from the encounter site,” Chowdhary said, addressing a press conference at Handwara.

He said the police had “specific information” about presence of militants in the area, following which the Handwara police, army’s 22 Rashtriya Rifles and CRPF launched a CASO.

Officials say the Babagund operation was one of the longest gun-battles between militants and forces in northern Kashmir in recent years.  The casualties on the forces’ side—five personnel—were highest in a single encounter in northern Kashmir in the recent years, they said. Following the “complexity” of the operation, the elite para-commandos from 3rd and 9th battalions were called in to join the encounter, an official said.

A police official, who was part of the operation, said soon after a house was blasted by the forces, there was a complete calm for some hours on Friday. “Due to this clam, the forces thought that the militants had been killed. But as a search party came close to the debris of the flattened house, the militants who had shifted to another attachment, fired indiscriminately, resulting in death of two policemen and two CRPF personnel. The third CRPF man succumbed to his injuries at a hospital on Sunday,” he said.

Meanwhile, around 25 members of five families were trapped in the operation and had taken shelter in a local house.

The trapped residents had called the district officials to inform them that they were running short of medicine and baby food.

Two ambulances and a water tanker were dispatched to the area Sunday morning on instructions of the district officials but they were not allowed to move towards the encounter site and were halted half a kilometer away, a group of local residents said.

“We are held up here since Sunday morning as forces do not allow us to move towards the encounter site. We are carrying baby food, milk and medicine for the residents who need these items desperately,” said a health official.

The water tanker and ambulances were allowed only after the operation was over in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, as the forces were withdrawing from the area, hundreds of youths appeared in the area and started pelting stones at the forces personnel, who, in turn, lobbed scores of teargas shells and fired pellets to disperse the protesters. The clashes continued for some time.

MUZAMIL SHAH