The calm in Jammu and Kashmir disappeared into the thin air during the highly publicised two-day visit of foreign envoys from over 20 countries that began on February 17, as six persons — three suspected militants and an equal number of policemen — were killed in the last 48 hours.
In a daring attack on Friday (February 19), minutes before the afternoon prayers, suspected militants shot two personnel of Jammu and Kashmir police from close range in the busy Baghat Chowk in uptown Srinagar. The chowk is only about seven kilometres from the sensitive Srinagar airport.
The two policemen, identified as Suhail Ahmad and Mohammad Yusuf, suffered bullet wounds and were taken to separate hospitals, but both succumbed to their wounds in less than an hour.
“Both the injured policemen, namely SgCt (Selection Grade Constable) Mohammad Yusuf of Zurhama Kupwara (north Kashmir) and Ct (Constable) Suhail Ahmad of Logripora Aishmuqam (south Kashmir) attained martyrdom. We pay our rich tributes to the martyrs and stand by their families at this crucial juncture,” the police said in a statement.
Immediately after the attack, a purported CCTV footage showed a young man wearing a long woollen garment (pheran), walking toward the market while holding an assault rifle and taking aim at the two policemen resting at a shop front in Baghat chowk. The face of the attacker, donning a cap, is partly visible in the video footage. Seconds after firing live ammunition at the cops, the gun-wielding youth can be seen fleeing as one white coloured Maruti car approaches in the one-way lane connecting the main Baghat market and onlookers and pedestrians run helter-skelter.
Government forces immediately cordoned off the entire area to nab the assailant.
Inspector-general of J&K Police (Kashmir Range), Vijay Kumar, told media persons that the two policemen were on a routine duty and were at the shop to buy something. “They were fired from behind. They were unarmed,” he said. He said the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was behind the attack and identified the militant involved by his first name Saqib.
The valley-based parties, including J&K National Conference (JKNC) and Mehbooba Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP), deplored the attack.
“JKNC unequivocally condemns the dastardly killing of two Jammu and Kashmir policemen Suhail Ahmad and Mohammad Yusuf in Baghat Srinagar. Our heartfelt condolences with the bereaved families and may Almighty give them strength to bear the inconsolable loss,” NC’s provincial spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar said.
Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, took to Twitter to condemn the attack. “Condemn the killing of two policemen in the Baghat attack. My heart goes out to their families & loved ones. This cycle of violence serves no cause & begets only misery.”
Adnan Ashraf, spokesperson of the Sajad Lone-led Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference (JKPC), said: “We strongly condemn the killing of two policemen in a dastardly and savage attack of senseless violence at Baghat.”
Before the attack, the J&K police had said in a statement that government forces were engaged in a gunfight with suspected militants in Beerwah. The police later said that a police official, Special Police Officer (SPO) Mohammad Altaf, was killed while Selection Grade Constable (SgCt) Manzoor Ahmad received bullet injuries in the encounter.
Independent reports suggested the armed militants managed to run away from the encounter site.
The police also claimed to have killed three militants in south Kashmir’s Shopian district on February 18 and recovered “incriminating material, including arms and ammunition”.
On February 17, when foreign envoys landed in Kashmir to “assess the ground situation”, militants shot at Aakash Mehra, the son of the owner of a famous vegetarian eatery (Krishna Dhaba) in Sonwar area of Srinagar, close to the sensitive Gupkar Road and Indian Army’s Badami Bagh cantonment. Mehra was wounded in the attack, but doctors said he was stable.
IG Vijay Kumar had said that “three motor bike-borne newly recruited militants” had fired at Mehra. He said the case was cracked almost immediately. “We acted swiftly and constituted teams under the supervision of DIG (Deputy Inspector General) rank officer that was headed by SP (Superintendent) South City. A civilian called SP South City to say that the attackers were riding a bike, after which we accessed the CCTV footage and followed other inputs.”
He said the Srinagar police, in collaboration with Anantnag police, followed leads and arrested two youths allegedly involved in the attack. “The (motor) bike and pistol used in the offence were seized. After interrogating the duo, they revealed that a third person was also involved. He was also arrested. All three were newly recruited militants and one of them was given pistol training in the forest area of Pahalgam (in south Kashmir).”
He said that two of those arrested hail from south Kashmir’s Pampore area, while the third was a resident of Pulwama.
According to Kumar, the trio was recruited by Gazi, a militant commander of the new outfit Resistance Front (TRF), which the police believe is an offshoot of the LeT. Kumar claimed that the case was solved within 24 hours and described the investigation as “big success”.
However, a series of attacks in the heart of Srinagar city and gunfights in south and central parts of Kashmir suggest that the ground situation is anything but normal. Riyaz Ahmad, an analyst, said: “These attacks tell us that militants can strike at will. The situation in Kashmir is not normal.”
Ahmad pointed toward the recently concluded visit of the foreign envoys and said that the Centre, which was “allergic to any third party mediation”, had “internationalised the Kashmir issue” by allowing the visit.
The PDP said the central government was “wooing foreign envoys through guided tours to seek an ‘all is well’ certificate”. “So much done to woo foreigners who have no stake in the Kashmir issue, while the main stakeholders i.e. the people of Jammu and Kashmir, are disregarded and brutalised into silence,” Mehbooba Mufti said.