Srinagar: In a major operation, security forces on Wednesday killed top Hizbul Mujahideen militant, Riyaz Naikoo, in his native village of Beighpora in south Kashmir.
Naikoo was the “operational chief” of the outfit and had been the face of militancy in Kashmir since the killing of the young militant commander Burhan Wani in 2016.
A senior police official said Naikoo was cornered along with another militant, in the village, surrounded by paddy fields and apple orchards. “He was on the run for eight years. His killing is a major success,” the official said.
The operation was launched by a joint team of the J&K police, army and CRPF late on Tuesday night. The forces even pressed into service excavator machines to dig up a railway track in the village over suspicions of an underground hideout.
Naikoo had given the slip to the security forces on several occasions in the past. He was killed in a residential building along with his associate, during the exchange of fire.
Defence spokesperson Rajesh Kalia confirmed the killing of two militants in the Beighpora encounter. However, he did not reveal the identity of the slain.
Big jolt to Kashmir militancy
Naikoo’s killing is seen as a major jolt to militancy in Kashmir. A category A++ militant, he rose in the Hizb ranks to take over the reins of the outfit in the Valley in 2017.
He replaced Zakir Musa as “divisional commander” who parted ways with the outfit over ideological differences and joined Ansar Ghawzat-Ul-Hind, the al Qaeda cell that calls for the implementation of an Islamic caliphate in Kashmir. Musa was killed in an encounter in May last year.
More than a month later, in 2017, when security forces killed Yasin Yatoo alias Mehmood Ghaznavi, the operational chief of the Hizb, Naikoo replaced him.
Naikoo is credited with holding the Hizb ranks together and preventing an ideological split when al Qaeda announced the setting up of its wing in the Valley.
“After the killing of Burhan and defection of Musa, it was Naikoo who held the group together,” said another police official from south Kashmir. “He played a major role in preventing infighting among militant groups.”
Though Naikoo was close to Burhan Wani, he maintained a low profile that helped him survive eight long years in Kashmir where the average “tenure” of a militant is barely a few months.
Though tech-savvy, he did not figure in any picture with Burhan on social media, at a time when militants are increasingly using Facebook and other platforms to post their photographs and messages.
“He was more into organisational matters and giving a political face to militancy in Kashmir,” said the police official. “He was among the longest surviving militants in Kashmir, even if you include militants who have come back into the fold.”
The official described Naikoo as a sharp-minded militant who planned and carried out several attacks on the security forces. He is believed to have revived the tradition of paying tributes to slain militants in Kashmir at their graves by firing shots in the air, wearing combat pouches and carrying an AK-47.
In 2018, Naikoo-led Hizb militants kidnapped 11 family members of policemen in south Kashmir, prompting the police to release his father, Asadullah Mir, from their custody.
The police had picked up Mir from his residence a day after militants had killed four policemen in Shopian. Later, in an audio message, Riyaz warned the police of dangerous consequences if the relatives of militants were not released.
Naikoo was accused by J&K police of involvement in the killing of several policemen in south Kashmir and threatening political workers to give up their affiliations or face death.
Who was Riyaz Naikoo?
In 2010, when the death of a teenager from Srinagar, Tufail Ahamad Mattoo, due to a teargas shell fired by a policeman to quell protests triggered unrest, scores of youth were arrested from across Kashmir. Naikoo was one among them.
He was booked under the Public Safety Act. When he walked out of jail in 2012, he spent a few months at home, before informing his family that he planned to apply for higher studies outside J&K.
On May 23 that year, Naikoo left home to meet his friends. When he did not return for some days the family started searching for him. They ultimately gave up when the police informed them that Naikoo had joined militancy.
Born in 1985, he was known as ‘master’ among his friends and in his village. His father is a tailor by profession and owns a tract of an apple orchard in the village.
After J&K police listed Naikoo as one of the most wanted militants in Kashmir, security forces raided his residence multiple times, looking for him and allegedly harassing his family.
In a recent interview, Mir said Naikoo was a good a student who was “traumatised” to see his friends being “hauled off to torture centres”.
“He wanted to become an engineer. He was good at mathematics but he ended up with a gun in hand. I only saw him on the internet since he disappeared,” Mir also said.