Colonel, Major among 5 personnel killed in encounter in Kashmir (Photo Credit: File Photo)
In the biggest loss in recent years, two senior Army officers, including a colonel, were among five security personnel killed during an encounter with terrorists in north Kashmir, officials said on Sunday.The encounter in Handwara in Kupwara district claimed the lives of Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh and Lance Naik Dinesh, all from the Brigade of the Guards regiment, and at present part of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles and deployed to counter terrorism in the hinterland.
A Jammu and Kashmir Police Sub-Inspector, Sageer Ahmad Pathan alias Qazi, also fell victim to the bullets of terrorists. Earlier his name was given by police as Shakeel Qazi. Before this, the Army had lost two colonel-ranking officer in separate terror incidents in 2015.
Giving details of the encounter at a village in Rajwar forests, officials said the two holed-up terrorists, who were eliminated in the encounter, included commander of banned Lashker-e-Taiba Haider, a Pakistani national who has been active in the north Kashmir area. The identity of the other was yet to be ascertained.
They had held some civilians hostage, the officials said, adding that a couple of terrorists could have managed to give security forces the slip under the cover of darkness as well. A hunt has been launched in the entire area.
Director General of Jammu and Kashmir Police Dilbagh Singh said, "Sad to inform that five brave personnel including Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood and sub-inspector of JKP Shakeel Qazi were martyred in the line of duty."
Security forces had noticed presence of some terrorists in the Rajwar forests in the Handwara area for the past few days and a brief exchange of fire had taken place on Thursday deep inside the jungles.
Around Saturday afternoon, intelligence inputs indicated presence of the same group of terrorists inside a house at Changimulla village, prompting Col Sharma to launch a cordon-and-search operation along with his team and Qazi. After a considerable lull, Col Sharma and four other personnel barged into a house from an adjacent cowshed presuming that the terrorists had been eliminated in the heavy gunfire.
According to the officials, the team came under heavy fire after rescuing the civilians and all communication link with Col Sharma and his team were snapped. Calls made on the mobile numbers of the team were answered by terrorists. The Army then rushed in para-troopers, who after ascertaining that the Army officer and his team were killed in the encounter, launched an offensive by the first light of the day and killed the two terrorists.
On conclusion of the operations, the house was searched early this morning and bodies of two terrorists eliminated in the encounter were recovered along with arms and ammunition. President Ram Nath Kovind, who is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, paid tributes to the soldiers and security personnel and said "...a grateful nation will always remember their supreme sacrifice. The entire country stands united in the fight against the forces of terror and evil. Thoughts and prayers with the families of martyrs."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, "Their valour and sacrifice will never be forgotten. They served the nation with utmost dedication and worked tirelessly to protect our citizens. Condolences to their families and friends." Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described it as "deeply disturbing and painful".
Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said the anti-terror operation highlighted the determination of the security forces to safeguard the lives of the people of Kashmir. The Army, in a tweet, said Chief of Army Staff General M M Naravane and all ranks of the force paid tributes to the "valiant braves of our Army and JK Police for their supreme sacrifice while fighting and eliminating terrorists in Handwara."
The death of Col Sharma and Major Sood, both from 21-RR, was a sad reminder of a similar incident two decades back when Commanding Officer of the batallion Colonel Rajinder Chauhan was killed by terrorists along with Brig B S Shergil in 2000. The death of a colonel-rank officer was seen in the valley after five years. In 2015, the Army had lost two colonels in a year in Kashmir. Colonel M N Rai of 2/9 Gorkha Rifles, was the CO of 42 RR and laid down his life for the country while fighting militants in Tral in south Kashmir in January 2015.
The same year, Col Santosh Mahadik was killed in an encounter in Kupwara. On the latest operation, the Army said that based on the intelligence input that terrorists were taking hostage some civilians in a house, a joint operation was launched by the Army and the JK Police. A team comprising five Army and police personnel entered the target area occupied by the terrorists to evacuate the civilians and successfully extricated them.
However, during the process, the team came under a heavy volume of fire by the terrorists and in the ensuing firefight the five personnel were killed, the Army said. The terrorists are believed to have come to Handwara to receive an infiltrating group from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, officials said.
A wreath-laying ceremony would be held tomorrow in Srinagar after which the bodies would be flown to their native places where they will be cremated keeping the coronavirus safety protocols in mind.