Lashkar top gun who brought Srinagar on militancy map killed
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Kashmir gunfight also claims three other lives; thousands carry slain Srinagar militants, civilian to Eidgah martyrs’ graveyard


Srinagar: A top Lashkar-e-Toiba commander, Mehraj-ud-Din Bangroo, was among four persons killed in a fierce early-morning gunfight in Srinagar’s downtown that was followed by a massive show of defiance in the capital. Bangroo’s fellow militant Fahad Mushtaq Waza, a resident of Khanyar, police constable Kamal Kishore of Reasi, and civilian Rayees Ahmad of Fateh Kadal were the three other persons killed.

Sheltered by a family in their two-storied residential house in Fateh Kadal, police and paramilitary CRPF threw a ring of cordon around the house in the darkness of night, after getting “high-grade intelligence input”. In the initial round, a posse of policemen knocked on the door of the suspected house and enquired from inmates about presence of anyone apart from their family members, which they denied. They singled out the houseowner Habibullah Hanga’s son Rayees Ahmad and insisted he reveal the whereabouts of the militants.

Then policemen entered the house in the darkness of night, carried out exhaustive room-to-room searches under lights, but came out empty.

“Forces took Rayees out and gave him fistfuls of beating for sometime before entering the house again along with him (Rayees),” recalled a family member, requesting anonymity.

Rayees is married and has a son. “The forces continued beating Rayees from midnight, when the police entered our house, till the morning,” said his grieving mother, Shakeela. “We could hear his cries but could not help as we were restricted in the kitchen,” she said.

A police officer, requesting anonymity, said the militants were hiding in an attic on the top floor and stayed silent in the hope that police might leave the house.

Between 6 and 7am, when the next round of searches was on, a blazing barrage of gunfire woke up residents to a tight siege laid outside the house in the interiors of downtown. The bout of firing claimed the life of police constable Kamal, on the spot, and wounded two other policemen and a CRPF soldier, who were evacuated to safety by their colleagues. But Kamal’s charred body was retrieved from the rubble of the burnt house three hours after the gunfight ended at 8am.

The house caught fire when forces targeted it with “explosives” to snuff out militants, and also Rayees, who “volunteered” to stay with the duo. It prompted the trio to jump out from the back of the house. The two militants fired rounds of AK-47 bullets at the forces, before they fell dead on the ground.

A police spokesperson in an official handout said, “Complicity of Rayees Ahmad who was part of the group in providing shelter and logistics to the terrorists is being investigated.”

The human as well as economic loss to the distraught family resulted in brief hospitalisation of Rayees’s father, Habibullah Hanga, who runs a ‘Hanga bakery shop’ established in the house. Rayees would devote his time running the shop apart from working as a civil contractor. He is believed to be Bangroo’s “friend” as they lived in the vicinity of each other and featured on police radar for sometime.

Early morning, when news about Bangroo’s death was broken to his old mother, she unwrapped the prayer mat for offering special prayers. “Yeh ous tamsundee amanat, te tamsee korum hawalee (The Almighty had gifted him to us and we returned him back),” her son, Mohammad Shafi, quoted her as saying.

Shafi told a group of people at his three-storey concrete house that the slain Bangroo had asked his family not to weep on his death, and that they should not abandon their lunch, which is a ritual during mourning in Kashmir region.

“As if he knew he had to die in daytime,” Shafi said, recalling his escapades of breaking cordons. He was in the past trapped at multiple places including at Batamaloo and Chattabal, where his associate from downtown was slain in May. “But today, death was destined to him. Nobody could have averted it,” Shafi said.

A neighbour, who came rushing with a group of protesting youth after being chased by police and CRPF, interrupted him, to extol himself Bangroo’s virtues of honesty and humility.

“He was a God-fearing man. Rarely do such men rise in this world,” he said.

In 2016, Bangroo, hailing from an economically well-to-do family, was given the responsibility by his family to run a bookseller’s shop in his locality of Fateh Kadal, in what was a way to keep him engrossed in some activity. But he abandoned it in no time and went underground to feature among the region’s most-wanted militants. A police official, pleading anonymity, described him as a “militant strategist” who revived militancy after more than a decade in Srinagar by recruiting the city youth.

“He was responsible for several attacks in Srinagar and was a name in militancy. After him, there is no other name in Srinagar,” the official told Kashmir Reader.

Among several cases that police blamed Bangroo for, was the killing of three policemen including an assistant sub-inspector in Srinagar in May 2016, apart from a series of grenade attacks in the city.

A former activist of Masarat Alam Bhat-led Muslim League, Bangroo’s tryst with militancy began in the late ’90s when he was a teenager. He served multiple jail terms for more than a decade but once out he would actively participate in pro-freedom activities and merge with militants in the Valley. It is believed he clandestinely ferried Syed Ali Geelani amid curfew in Auto rickshaw during the 2008 protests to the Jamia Masjid to address a huge gathering there.

More than a week ago, after two National Conference workers were gunned down few meters away from the gunfight site, the hunt for Bangroo intensified. His brother and some people known to him were picked up and detained at Srinagar Cargo, where police’s Special Operations Group operates. They were released after Bangroo’s death was confirmed.

The freed brother, who quite resembled the slain Bangroo, told a small group of people outside his home in a narrow Fateh Kadal alley that a convoy of vehicles left the Cargo on Tuesday night at about 11pm. “In the morning we were told about his death,” he said.

Fahad of Khanyar, known as a prominent stone-thrower, went missing in March this year. Coming from a traditional National Conference family, he did not return home despite repeated appeals through video by his distraught mother.

Bangroo’s body along with those of the killed civilian and militant were kept at Srinagar Police Control Room. The bodies were handed to the respective families at about 4pm.

As soon as the bodies arrived, thousands of people who were waiting since morning began to march through the streets of downtown. Atop two trucks, the mourners waved Pakistan flags, shouted slogans in favour of Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Toiba and chanted “Aaya aaya sher aaya (Here comes the lion)”.

A throng of women singing elegies and shouting slogans followed the procession on the way till Eidgah where they joined women who had already swarmed the graveside. They beat their chest, crying and wailing when men laid down the bodies on ground.

The rally culminated in Kashmir’s largest martyrs’ graveyard at Eidgah where thousands of people offered funeral prayers before laying Bangroo along with Fahad and Rayees to rest, in the row where Bangroo’s associate Fayaz Hamal was buried five months ago.

The sea of mourners filled the newly-fenced (by the Muslim Wakf Board) ground in Eidgah. Multiple rows of people offered funeral prayers from outside the fenced area. It was for the first time that such a massive gathering was seen here since 2008, when tens of thousands gathered at Eidgah on the Hurriyat’s call.

With the burial of the three bodies today, the Eidgah cemetery was filled almost to the full, with a small patch in the middle remaining.

An unverified claim about presence of a militant sporting a beard and long hair at the funeral created excitement among people, with youth jostling to touch his hands in reverence.

They chased the man, crying out to take them along, when he began to run away across the Eidgah ground, till he vanished through an alley in the darkness.