More than 60 wounded in coming to the rescue of militants, who emerge alive, then drive around on motorbike; army soldier killed during gunfight
Kulgam: A 16-hour-long encounter in Khudwani area of Kulgam ended with two militants emerging alive to much jubilation, but not before four civilians had been killed and more than 60 wounded, four of them critically by bullets, two houses completely gutted, an army soldier dead and two other soldiers wounded. The government forces called off their operation, during which military helicopters were pressed into service, on Wednesday afternoon after they could not recover any militant’s body from the gunfight site.
Eyewitnesses said that two militants were rescued alive by locals from the encounter site, minutes after which they reappeared on a motorbike. The militants made several rounds on the motorbike from Khudwani Chowk to the encounter site and back. They were later carried upon shoulders by the locals, who, chanting pro-freedom and anti-India slogans, paraded them across Khudwani in celebratory fashion.
The area, sources said, reverberated with slogans and jubilant cries as the militants made their rounds. “Youths clicked selfies with the militants and made videos of the scenes,” local sources said.
The joy, though, was little consolation to the families of four civilians who died of bullet injuries that the Kashmir Inspector-General of Police (IGP) said were caused by militants’ gunfire. Locals, however, said that the civilians were killed by bullets that government forces fired on people protesting near the encounter site.
IGP Kashmir SP Pani told Kashmir Reader that the civilians were killed as they persistently appeared in the arc of intense gunfire by the militants. “The encounter was taking place on the banks of river Jhelum and on the other side there was a congregation of youth directly in the arc of fire by the militants,” Pani said.
He said that the civilians were repeatedly asked to leave the site but they were insensitive to the precarious situation. Pani refuted the allegations that the civilians were killed in firing by government forces.
He said that the operation was later called off as the congregation of protestors kept growing and there were fears of more collateral damage due to the firing by militants.
“Two militants of the Lashkar-e-Toiba have managed to come out of the encounter alive, one of them injured,” Pani said.
The slain civilians have been identified as Sharjeel Ahmad Sheikh of Khudwani, Bilal Ahmad Tantray of Kujjar, who was residing at his uncle’s place in Hawoora, Faisal Ilahi of Melhura Shopian, and Aijaz Ahmad Palla of Tulkhan Bijbehara.
The soldier killed was identified by army spokesperson Col Rajesh Kalia as Sepoy Sada Gunaka Rao from Andhra Pradesh. Two army soldiers were also injured during the encounter, he said.
The encounter, as per police reports, was triggered late Tuesday night in Wani Mohalla locality of Khudwani, following a cordon and search operation to locate militants hiding in the area.
“As the cordon was being laid, the militants fired a volley of bullets in a bid to escape,” a senior police officer said. “They were, however, pushed inside with retaliatory fire.”
He said that the fire was halted on both sides after the initial exchange of fire and was resumed early morning on Wednesday.
As the fire was resumed this morning, thousands of people from adjoining areas and from many parts of south Kashmir tried to reach the site of the encounter. Local sources told Kashmir Reader that government forces used extreme force to disperse the protesting youth.
“The forces used live ammunition, pellets and tear smoke shells to disperse the protesting youth, who were hell-bent upon reaching the site to save the militants,” sources said.
At least 65 people were injured in the alleged firing by government forces, among whom four succumbed to their injuries.
The injured were rushed to different hospitals in Anantnag and Kulgam districts while the encounter raged.
The forces kept bombarding the houses that they suspected the militants to be hiding in, razing in the process at least two houses to ground.
“Helicopters were pushed into service which hovered very low over the site of the encounter in a bid to trace the hiding militants,” local sources said.
Late afternoon on Wednesday, the exchange of fire came to a halt again, after which bulldozers were employed to look for bodies of militants in the rubble. The clashes near the site meanwhile continued, sources said.
“When the forces were unable to locate the bodies, they left the site and a sea of people swamped over it. They brought out two militants alive, one of them injured,” sources said.
Director General of Police SP Vaid tweeted: “The encounter is over and I am told that the militants have been brought out alive by the people in the area.”
Block Medical Officer (BMO) of Qaimoh, Dr Gowhar Abbas, told Kashmir Reader that they received one dead body and 42 others injured by pellets, bullets and tear smoke shells.
“One youth was brought dead. Among the 43 others, four were shifted to Srinagar, three with pellet injuries and one with a bullet injury,” Abbas said.
In Anantnag district, 21 persons were brought injured to Anantnag District Hospital and Sub-District Hospital (SDH) Bijbehara. “We received 10 injured out of which we shifted four to Srinagar. Three had critical bullet wounds in head, neck and abdomen. One had pellet injuries,” Dr Showket, Medical Superintendent (MS) of SDH Bijbehara, said.
From Anantnag District Hospital, at least six injured were shifted to Srinagar with pellet injuries, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Fazil Kochak told Kashmir Reader.