Srinagar: Five army soldiers were killed during an anti-terror operation in Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri district on May 5, Friday.
During the operation, security forces were said to have surrounded a group of terrorists, reportedly involved in the Bhatta Durian attack.
Mobile internet services have been suspended in the area. Several columns of the army and its commando force as well as personnel from the J&K Police and central paramilitary forces are conducting searches in the area to hunt down the perpetrators.
This is the third major attack this year in the Pir Panchal area of Jammu division in which at least seven civilians, including two minors, and ten army soldiers have been killed so far.
The developments come against the backdrop of Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s meeting in Goa.
A Jammu-based defence spokesperson said that five soldiers were killed after terrorists triggered a massive explosion in the Kesari area of the Kandi hamlet in Rajouri on Friday morning, May 5. The explosion happened after a brief exchange of gunfire between the soldiers and the terrorists.
Officials said that a massive search operation was going on since May 3 in the Pir Panchal forests along the Line of Control, following the deadly attack on an army truck last month in the Poonch district, in which five soldiers were killed while one was critically injured.
“Indian Army columns have been conducting relentless intelligence-based operations to flush out a group of terrorists involved in an ambush on an army truck in the Tota Gali area of Bhata Dhurian in Jammu region,” the army said.
Officials said that a search party of the J&K Police and the army “established contact with a group of terrorists well entrenched in a cave” in Rajouri’s Kandi forest at around 7:30 am on Friday. “The encounter began at 8 am…The area is thickly vegetated with rocky and steep cliffs,” said an army statement.
As the joint teams closed in on the spot, the terrorists triggered an explosive device, resulting in the death of two soldiers while four soldiers, including an officer, were critically injured. Of them, three soldiers later succumbed to their injuries while the condition of the fourth soldier is said to be critical.
Officials said that two to three terrorists are reportedly hiding in the area. They added that the operation is underway.
“Additional teams from the vicinity have been directed to the site of the encounter. As per initial reports, a group of terrorists are trapped in the area. There is a likelihood of casualties in the terrorist’s group. The operation is in progress,” the army said.
The Kandi area in Rajouri, where the encounter is going on, is located around 50 kilometres away from the site of a deadly attack on an army camp in August last year, in which four soldiers were gunned down by terrorists in the Darhal area. Two fidayeens, who were involved in the attack, were also gunned down.
The Peoples Anti-Fascist Force (PAFF), which is a proxy of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and was banned by the Union government earlier this year, had claimed responsibility for the attack, warning that it would not allow the G20 event in J&K.
Kashmir is set to host the third G20 tourism meeting on May 22-24.
A militancy-free district till 2019
Rajouri was a militancy-free district till 2019. After the Union government read down Article 370 and downgraded Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, the hilly district has seen a revival of militancy with a sharp spike in insurgency-related violence in recent years.
At least three major explosions were reported from the district last year in which four civilians were wounded. Police claimed to have busted a terror module behind the explosions with the arrest of a ‘wanted’ Lashkar-e-Taiba commander, Talib Hussain Shah, who later turned out to be an in-charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media wing for minorities.
According to officials, a group of heavily armed terrorists, some of whom are believed to be local militants from Kashmir, have taken refuge in Poonch and Rajouri. Officials say they hide in the dense forests after carrying out attacks on security forces as well as civilians.
In 2021, a major search operation, one of the longest in J&K’s history, was launched by joint teams of security forces in Poonch and Rajouri, which lasted for nearly three weeks. At least nine army soldiers lost their lives while battling a group of highly trained terrorists hiding in the forests.
While five soldiers were killed on October 11, 2021, in the forests of Chamrel, adjoining Dera Ki Gali, four more soldiers were killed in Bhatta Durian, on October 14, 2021. The operation was later called off without any success.
On New Year’s eve, suspected terrorists gunned down six civilians, including a father-son duo and two minors, in two attacks in Rajouri’s Dhangri area. The incident triggered a wave of fear among the minority Hindu families living in the village.
According to reports, security agencies had flagged the possibility of a fidayeen strike in the area and locals had also reported sighting militants in the Rajouri district to the local police, days before the attack took place in Dhangri, whose perpetrators continue to remain at large.
The deadly attack evoked widespread condemnation in J&K with former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti as well as other political leaders expressing grief over the loss of lives.