Srinagar: One of the six militants killed in an early morning encounter in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district on Friday was an accused in the assassination of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari, Jammu and Kashmir police said.
The name of slain rebel Azad Ahmad Malik alias Azad Dada, a top Lashkar-e-Tayabba commander, had figured in the case pertaining to the assassination of Bukhari and his security personnel, said a police statement issued on Friday evening.
“In the aforementioned case which is under investigation, a hue and cry notice was issued against him along with three others on the basis of material evidence collected,” police said.
Bukhari, who was editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir newspaper, was shot dead by three gunmen outside his office on June 14, along with his two security guards. Bukhari also edited two other papers, Buland Kashmir and Sangermal.
On June 28, police told the media in Srinagar that wanted Lashkar-e-Tayabba militant Naveed Jhat, who escaped from police custody in January this year, executed the murder plan, along with two other militants, Malik and Muzaffar Ahmad alias Talha, both from south Kashmir.
A senior police official said Malik was wanted in the murder case. “He (Malik) was one among the suspects,” said the official.
Asked about the progress of the investigation in the case, the official termed it “very complex”. “There are at least three aspects to it – the conspiracy in Pakistan and Kashmir, the plan and the execution,” said the official, adding “investigation into the case will still take some and once it is completed we will file the charge sheet”.
In the June press conference, Inspector General of Police, Kashmir range, S.P. Pani had said that the police investigation traced the conspiracy to a Pakistan-based Kashmiri blogger, Sajad Gul.
The official said Gul, a resident of Srinagar, was arrested at least twice in militancy-related cases – first by the Delhi police in 2002 and then by the J&K police in 2016. In March 2017, he managed to obtain a passport fraudulently and fled to Pakistan, the official said.
The LeT had denied any role in Bukhari’s assassination, saying it was ready to cooperate in an international probe into the killing. United Jehad Council, an amalgam of various militant outfits based in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir too had distanced itself from the allegations.
In a statement, UJC chief Syed Salahuddin had also sought an international probe into the assassination.
In July this year, the J&K government has requested the Centre to invoke the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) in the investigation of the case to approach the US for seeking assistance for collection of “evidence from social sites serviced from that country”.
“It is work in progress,” an official told The Wire, on the status of the MLAT request.
Who was Malik?
A resident of Arwani in Anantnag, Malik had joined militancy in 2016. Over the years, he rose in the rebel ranks to become district commander of the LeT.
Listed as category A ++ militant by the J&K police, Malik carried a Rs 12 lakh bounty on his head. According to the police, he was involved in several attacks on security establishments and weapon-snatching incidents in south Kashmir.
Married and with a child, 31-year-old Malik was arrested several times by the police after 2014 for his connections with militants, before he joined the militancy himself.
In April this year, he escaped along with two other LeT militants in a 20-hour-long gunfight in Kulgam. Four civilians were killed during the clashes between the security forces and protestors that had erupted near the gunfight site.
A police official from south Kashmir said Malik worked in close coordination with Naveed Jatt, and both were trying to revive the LeT in south Kashmir.
Jatt, a resident of Pakistan’s Punjab province, infiltrated the border into Kashmir in 2011-12 and operated in the northern part of the Valley for some time before shifting his base further south.
He was arrested from a hideout in Kulgam in 2014. However, he escaped from police custody in January this year when he was being taken to a Srinagar hospital from the central jail for a checkup.
Other militants killed in the operation
Besides Malik, two other top rebel commanders and three militants were killed in the pre-dawn gun battle between forces and militants in the Dachinpora belt of Bijbehara.
While slain militants Firdaus Ahmad Mir was district commander of the LeT in Pulwama, Unais Shafi was district commander of Hizbul Mujahideen in Anantnag. The other slain militants, Basit Mir of Anantnag and Shahid Ahmad of Pulwama, were affiliated with the LeT while Atif Hassan was associated with Hizbul Mujahideen.
“It was a prompt and precise operation that was carried out jointly by the army and police, inflicting a heavy loss to militants,” general officer commanding, 15 corps, A.K. Bhat told reporters after the encounter.
‘Hideout inside an orchard’
Following two overground workers (OGWs) led to one of “the biggest catches” for security forces in recent months, said the police official.
People in Shahlgund-Satkipora and adjoining villages were still in deep sleep when joint forces of the army, J&K police and CRPF laid a cordon around the area, nestled among dense orchards, at around 3 am.
This time however, instead of residential houses, a tin shed, inside an apple orchard located on the boundary of the village, was the target of the forces.
“The information about the hideout was secured after hours of interrogation of two OGWs who were picked up from the area late evening,” said a police official privy to details of the operation. “The fact that they were out so late and carrying dinner in suspicious circumstances led us to believe where they could be headed.”
The information obtained was “so accurate and precise” that forces laid several layers of cordon around the orchards before going in for final assault, to ensure no militant escaped, taking advantage of the darkness. “Inside the shed in the orchard was the hideout – a spacious trench dug deep in the ground,” said the official.
Once contact was established the militants came out, triggering a six-hour-long gunfight that finally ended with the death of all six militants at around 9 am, the official said.
This is the first time militants were trapped away from a residential area, inside their hideout and that too in an orchard. Over the years, Kashmir has witnessed gun battles between security forces and militants who are holed up in residential houses. These encounters often end with forces using explosive materials to kill the militants.
“It was one of the most successful operations this year which didn’t witness any collateral damage,” said the J&K police.