“We are doing our bit for the country,” said Prakash Singh Jamwal outside the Sunjuwan Military Station on the outskirts of Jammu city.
Jamwal, who identified himself as a social worker, was among the local residents gathered around the station on Sunday, February 11. They had been there since the morning of February 10, distributing tea and meals to security forces and journalists outside the military station while soldiers battled armed attackers inside.
“As long as our jawans are fighting for us, it’s our duty to do something, as Indians,” he said.
The station had been under siege since the early hours of February 10, when militants had stormed it a day after the fifth death anniversary of 2001 Parliament-attack convict, Afzal Guru.
Though the group has not officially claimed responsibility yet, security officials said the fidayeen are believed to be part of the “Afzal Guru squad”, a wing of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Five soldiers, one civilian and three militants had been killed, the army said in a press briefing on Sunday afternoon.
Two news channels, citing army officials, later claimed that four militants had been killed.
Before dawn on Saturday, at least three fidayeen attackers, wearing camouflage fatigues, had breached the fences towards the back of the camp, where the residential quarters are located, local police officials said on Sunday afternoon. A portion of the station’s boundary wall here consists of razor wire over mere poles and tin sheets.
These quarters house soldiers and their families. The attackers entered the quarters, opening indiscriminate fire on residents, said army officials who did not identify themselves.
“During the sanitising of residential quarters, bodies of one more JCO (Junior Commissioned Officer), two jawans, and an elderly man, father of a soldier, were recovered,” Colonel Devendar Anand, an army spokesman said during the briefing on Sunday afternoon. The operation was still going on at that time, he said.
All those killed belonged to Jammu and Kashmir. Five, including the civilian, were from the Kashmir Valley. One soldier hailed from Jammu’s Kathua district. At least 10 others, including a pregnant woman, were injured in the attack. Doctors at an army Hospital operated on the woman, who gave birth to a baby girl. A 14-year-old remains critical.
While several families were evacuated, some remained in their apartments as the gun battle raged on, security officials said. By Sunday evening the stand-off had continued for more than 40 hours and some explosions could still be heard from inside the base. The operation was halted for the night though a security cordon was maintained and a vigil kept, army officials said.
Under the circling drones
As the gunfight erupted on Saturday, local residents showed up outside the camp in solidarity with the soldiers. By evening, they were joined by activists of different political parties, who cheered on the soldiers as armoured military vehicles entered the camp.
On Sunday, a few rounds of fire were heard but the gunfight was less intense than on Saturday, residents said, as firing continued till 8 pm. Most local residents along the station’s periphery had fled their homes and, on Sunday, the local police evacuated those who had stayed behind.
Even as residents distributed food on Sunday, drones circled overhead, towards the back of the station. Soldiers took position around the residential quarters, where the attackers were said to be holed up.
Attacking residential quarters
According to state police officials, fidayeen fighters generally take up positions in high-rise buildings or densely built residential quarters to inflict maximum damage before being killed.
Jaish-e-Mohammad’s fidayeen fighters had carried out a similar attack in the Kashmir Valley in the recent past. On August 26, two fidayeen stormed the District Police Lines in South Kashmir’s Pulwama, killing four paramilitary soldiers and four policemen, including two barbers and a nursing orderly.
The Sunjuwan base in not new to fidayeen attacks. In 2003, a fidayeen attack by the Lashkar-e-Taiba killed 12 soldiers and injured nine. In 2002, the Kaluchak army cantonment, some 10 kilometres from Sunjuwan, was attacked by the Lashkar, killing 31, including soldiers and their family members, and injuring 47.
The resurgence of Jaish-e-Mohammad
Saturday’s attack is being suspected to have been carried out by the Jaish-e-Mohammad which has seen a resurgence in the Valley lately, security officials said. Since last year, the Jaish has mounted at least four fidayeen attacks.
On December 31, it launched an attack at a paramilitary training centre in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. The attack was carried out by two local Kashmiris, including a minor boy, and a foreign national.
The Jaish-e-Mohammad and other armed outfits have started cooperating in recent years, police officials in Kashmir said on Sunday. On January 31, Syed Salahuddin, who heads the largely Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, was said to have met Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad, at Athmuqam in Neelum Valley in Pakistan-occupied-Jammu and Kashmir, officials said, citing an intelligence report. “As many as 30 terrorists” were undergoing training on the other side of the Line of Control, the report warned, and were likely to infiltrate into the Indian side in the coming months.
Meanwhile in North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, Ghulam Mohiuddin Mir, the father of a slain soldier, was seen appealing for peace in a video circulated among the local press. “India and Pakistan should talk and solve this problem. Countless people are being killed,” he said, addressing journalists at his home. “Innocents are being killed. Hundreds are killed for the faults of one.”