5 Indian officers killed in Kashmir days after worst militant attack in decades

Indian Army soldiers arrive near the site of a gun battle between suspected militants and Indian security forces in Pinglan village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district February 18, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Younis Khaliq)

SRINAGAR, India – Five security personnel were killed in an encounter with militants in Indian-administered Kashmir on Monday (Feb. 18), deepening concerns that the territory is entering a new cycle of violence days after a suicide bomber carried out the deadliest attack in decades.

That attack, which killed 40 paramilitary officers, prompted promises of retaliation by India and a renewal of tensions with Pakistan. A Pakistan-based militant group called Jaish-e-Muhammad, or Army of Muhammad, claimed responsibility for the Thursday attack.

Early Monday, Indian security forces engaged in a multi-hour gun battle with militants in the district of Pulwama, the same area where Thursday’s attack took place.

Four soldiers and a police officer were killed, along with three militants and one civilian. The militants targeted were members of Jaish-e-Muhammad and one was a Pakistani citizen, said Dilbag Singh, the state police chief. One of the senior-most police officers in Kashmir was also shot in the leg in the encounter, which lasted until Monday evening.

India holds Pakistan responsible for the attacks on its security personnel. It accuses Pakistani intelligence services of providing safe haven and material support to groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, something Pakistan denies.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is running for reelection this spring, and public pressure for a military response is running high. But experts say that raids or airstrikes in Pakistani territory risk an unpredictable escalation and may not ultimately deter militants.

In Kashmir, last week’s attack could mark the start of a new phase of violence. Militants have waged an insurgency against Indian rule for three decades in Kashmir, seeking either to claim independence or join Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan claim the Himalayan region, which is divided by a heavily militarized frontier.

The Feb. 14 attack highlighted the increasing pull of the militancy on local youth. Adil Ahmad Dar, an 18-year old who grew up in a village six miles from the site of the attack, drove a sport-utility vehicle loaded with explosives into a security convoy traveling toward the nearby city of Srinagar.

That combination of tactics – a suicide attacker, a massive car bomb – is rare in Kashmir, where militants have tended to carry out operations using firearms and grenades. Security officials are apprehensive that the attack marks a potentially perilous turn in the strategies adopted by militants.

This type of attack is “what happens in Afghanistan or Syria,” said Sanjay Sharma, a spokesman for the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary force whose officers were killed in last week’s attack. “There is a changing modus operandi, along with cross-border help,” he said, a reference to Pakistan.

Sharma said that the unanticipated tactics would force a review of how the security forces operate. The attack last week occurred as a convoy of at least 70 vehicles carrying more than 2,000 security personnel traveled along a national highway toward Srinagar. No “civilian movement” will be permitted in the future when such convoys pass, Sharma said.

Bhawesh Kumar, 30, a CRPF officer, was traveling in the fifth bus in the convoy, two vehicles behind where the attacker struck. “We want more safety to combat the new threat,” Kumar said. “But now we know what kind of incidents are possible.”

D.S. Hooda, a general who commanded the Indian army forces in Kashmir until his retirement in 2016, said he hoped that last week’s attack was not the start of a trend. Security forces will have to exercise vigilance in keeping track of explosives, he said, and improve intelligence gathering. But “it’s very, very difficult to try to counter somebody who wants to carry out a suicide attack.”

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