September 1999 News

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Kupwara turning into Afghanistan

17 September 1999
Daily Excelsior

HANDWARA: Having learned lessons from the decade-long first phase of Kashmir insurgency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan has obviously launched the "people-friendly" phase of militancy, beginning from Kupwara district. It appears that even the Kargil front had been opened to clear the Valley of security forces so as to re-establish bases at strategically important positions in Kashmir.

Officials put the number of 1999-infiltrators at around 1000 in the border districts of Baramulla and Kupwara. Unofficial figures put it around 2,500 militants while as a commander of the freshly-inducted foreigners claims that there were at least 3000 militants in Kupwara district alone. Over 90% of them are Pakistani and Afghan cadres of Harkat-ul-Jihar-e-Islami (HJI), Mujahideen-e-Albadr, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Unlike in the past, they have a "unified command", they do move and operate jointly and not a single incident of group clash has been reported in Kupwara district since May this year.

Though there is thick concentration of the post-Kargil militants in a vast area ranging from Rafee-abad and Nowgam up to Bandipora and Kangan, four particular belts of Kupwara district - namely Rajwar, Ramhal, Kandi and Lolab - have been turned into "liberated zones". Everybody here says that thick groups of heavily-armed foreigners have been making daytime movement, conducting identification parades, checking identity cards of passenger, raising concrete bunkers in dense forests and taking essential commodities from the main markets to their hideouts.

Commanders are young but extremely cautious that their presence, movement and operations did not cause any trouble for the local population. They have identified hundreds of "Indian agents" in National Conference (NC) activists, surrenderees and police personnel but, at least for the time being, they have spared almost all of them lest it should multiply their enemies. "These foreigners have been striking at major formations. They can eliminate anybody in a matter of seconds. But, they have apprehensions that their civilian operations would create for them a hostile atmosphere", said a school-teacher of Zachaldara.

The militants have been threatening people to ensure a zero turnout during the polling on Saturday but, till date, they have killed none for participating in the electoral exercise. Sardar Khan, a prominent NC activist of Chogal, has been one-odd casualty.

"Where-ever they (militants) stay for a night, they pay the house-owner at least Rs 1000. They have been purchasing rice at Rs 3000 a quintal and on certain occasions they have paid Rs 50 for a bread", says a State Government official. On the contrary, he said, security forces have adopted "foolish strategies" to stave off an attack. The camps of security forces have reduced ten-fold since Kargil. At all formations, local people are made to maintain nocturnal vigil with kerosene oil lanterns. At several places, people are taken forcibly for felling trees and transportation of timber to saw-mills.

Mohamad Sultan, a Handwara resident, pointed out that, untill recently, Kupwara,-Srinagar passengers were being subjected to senseless identification parades and then made to tread a long distance. Not even a pistol had ever been recovered. A bus, which had been cleared at 6 check-points, was seized by Task Force at Pattan with 30 wireless sets. "Now some General Kaushal of Rashtriya Rifles has been kind enough to remove the barrier", said Mohammad Sultan. He stressed on need to build an effective intelligence network so that only militants and their guides were caught and the innocent civilians remained intact.

Residents of Ramhal area said that almost all the camps vacated by 9-paras (9 Special Force) had been occupied by militants. They said that at some places militants had camouflaged with burning lanterns as if they were civilian patrols and later launched attacks on the camps. On one occasion, the lantern-wielding civilians themselves had come across militants and explained to them how they could pass off safely.

On the condition of anonymity, a police official at Vilgam disclosed that militants had conducted "ceremonial parade" on occasion of Pakistan's Independence Day on August 14 last at Doolipora school. At two different places, militants even intercepted SHO Vilgam and SDM Handwara Sharafat Ali but allowed them to proceed after checking their identity cards. The SDM was "directed" to arrange more rice for a particular area.

The HJI "Ameer" Haroon Bhai, along with 30 of his cadres -- all of them in the age group of 17-23 years -- has an interface with EXCELSIOR at a place in Ramhal belt. He is not a bit apprehensive of a military strike but desired that the exact location be not disclosed. "Our own high-ups could get angry with us", he said and asked not to take any pictures of their heavy combat weapons, which, according to him, included anti-aircraft guns, ballistic missiles, stinger missilesetc.a. Pointing to an anti-aircraft gun, Haroon Bhai -- hailing from Islamabad, Pakistan -- claimed that it could shoot down a MiG-21 easily.

Haroon Bhai asserted that a large number of "Mujahideen" would soon turn the entire Valley of Kashmir into an Kargil. He said that 3000 foreigners, with Kashmiri helpers, had already occupied vast areas in Kupwara district and that "a number of training camps" had also been set up for Kashmiri cadres. There is plenty of shoulder-held stinger missiles, mortar guns, rocket-launchers, UMGs as also sophisticated Kenwood and Icom radio sets in the HJI arsenal.

Asked why the heavy weaponry had not been used as yet, Haroon Bhai said that orders for that were "still awaited". He claimed that "Mujahi-deen" continued to be in control of "important points" in Kargil sector and that the Srinagar-Leh highway could be targeted by them at will. "You'll see another Kargil in Kupwara very soon", he said. Asked what exactly brought him to Kashmir, the HJI commander said: "We are in to give final push to Jihad. Our Kashmiri brethren had fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. Now, we are here to reciprocate".

Haroon Bhai asserted that the militants would never allow the elections to take place in Kashmir and all those participating in the "drama" would live to rue it.

Brigadier R S Karwal, Commander of Rashtriya Rifles 07-Sector, said that after Pakistani army's defeat in Kargil, ISI had pushed in a number of "foreign mercenaries" and "regular troopers" to keep the pot boiling in the Valley. He said that a number of battalions had been withdrawn for Kargil and the same had created a counter-insurgency vacuum in certain pockets. Nevertheless, he said, security forces had eliminated a large number of militants in Kupwara district during the last one month and more troops would soon join in and carry out a major counter-offensive on the infiltrators.

It may be a short lived phenomenon but still a fact that the suicide squads of well-indoctrinated foreigners have been striking at vital military, paramilitary and intelligence formations in Kupwara district. About a score of personnel, including a commanding officer, have been killed. Today itself, militants conducted a massive rocket attack on the residential house of MLA Kupwara Saifullah Mir at Shumnag and he had a narrow escape. Over 500 "potential targets", mostly NC activists and former militants, have fled Kupwara.

Meanwhile, officials this evening said on the condition of anonymity that for smooth polling, Kupwara has been divided into 11 zones and 31 sectors. Over 200 companies of Paramilitary forces and 50 companies of police have reached here to ensure free, fair and trouble-free polling on Saturday. Besides, 60 companies of regular Army have also reached for permanent counter-insurgency operations during the last two days.


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