Kashmir Report

'Cleaning up the muck for a cooler summer': Kashmir police officer explains rise in encounter deaths

'Had they been dying from time to time, their numbers would be less. But they did not die for the six months.'

As summer approaches in Kashmir, encounters between security forces and militants have grown in frequency. “(We) basically are cleaning up the muck for a cooler summer,” said Deputy Inspector General (North Kashmir Range) Nitish Kumar on Wednesday.

A “backlog had accumulated” after last summer’s unrest, Kumar said. Police officials put down the frequency of encounters to the suspension of operations during the unrest in 2016. Security forces were engaged in maintaining law and order and the disruption of the intelligence grid.

Operations were also hit by the winter months. “Now that the weather has cleared up and other constraints also have gone down, operations are taking place normally,” Kumar added.

The intervening winter months account for the sudden spate of encounter deaths in the last couple of months, Kumar said. “Had they been dying from time to time, their numbers would be less. But they did not die for the six months as the there was a law and order situation here (in the valley). During that infiltration was at par (with previous years),” he said.

Foreign militants, who had been largely restricted to North Kashmir earlier, Kumar said, had now made their way down to other parts of Kashmir including south Kashmir, which is considered the hub of local militancy.

Apart from security forces and militants, an encounter on Sunday’ in Kulgam also claimed two civilian lives. One was killed, security forces claimed, as he was part of the stone-pelting crowd they fired on. Another civilian, the son of the owner of the house in which the militants were holed up, had been held hostage and killed by the militants, the army claimed. This was refuted by the family, who alleged the deceased was killed by the army.

Speaking to the press on Wednesday, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat warned of “tough action” against civilians who disrupt operations during encounters.

‘Summer backlog’

As protesting crowds melted away last November, security forces stepped up counterinsurgency operations after a gap of more than five months. Since then, going by reports, at least 32 militants have been killed in encounters. Twenty two of them were killed just in the first two months of this years.

More than a dozen encounters have taken place across Kashmir since October, said police officials. At least five encounters took place in January. At least four militants have reportedly been arrested since the unrest ebbed.

Over the last week, the Valley has been dotted with encounters. On February 12, four militants, two civilians, and two army soldiers were killed in an encounter in Frisal, a village in Kulgam district of south Kashmir.

On February 14, security forces gunned down four militants in two separate encounters, in Hajin and Kralgund Handwara, North Kashmir. In another incident on the same day in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, militants, including Abu Dujana, a wanted commander of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba, managed to escape and fled from a checkpoint set up by the police.

Checking the crowds

In many incidents following the unrest, protestors, mostly youth, still emerged on the scene and clashed with security forces, after militants escaped from the checkpoint. As stone pelting crowds become a regular feature of encounters, security forces have tried various ways to tackle them.

In February 2016, the local police had issued an advisory asking parents to restrain their wards. “In case any encounter starts anywhere, the people, particularly the parents of young adults of the nearby area, are requested not to allow their wards to move towards the encounter site. In case they are outside home, they should be recalled to home,” read the advisory.

Rawat’s statement on “tough action” seems to have been prompted by recent losses among security forces. “Our aim has been to conduct operations in a way that don’t endanger the civilians. However, sometimes locals prevent us from conducting military operations – at times even supporting terrorists to escape,” the PTI quoted General Rawat having said. “It leads to higher casualties among the security forces.

On its part, the District Administrations of Srinagar, Budgam and Shopian have advised people not to assemble near encounter sites to avoid loss and injuries to precious human lives.

“Prohibitory restrictions have been imposed within the radius of three kilometers from the site of any counter-insurgency operation in the districts,” the statement read.

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