Thousands of security personnel cordoned off some 20 villages in south Kashmir on Thursday in a massive hunt for militants believed to be hiding in the area, but the operation was called off after eight hours without any arrests, police said.
The biggest anti-militancy operation in Kashmir in recent years, described by a police officer as “unprecedented”, followed a spree of bank robberies and spurt in militant attacks in south of the valley — a militant hotbed — where insurgents were believed to be moving freely around, recording videos, clicking pictures and posting them on social media groups.
Indian Army chief General Bipin Rawat, however, said it was a “regular operation” conducted to “make sure that the situation is brought under control” in the Kashmir Valley where a spate of anti-government protests has rattled the government.
“Every day we do it. There is nothing new. Today’s operation is happening because banks have been looted and police personnel have been killed,” Gen Rawat said in New Delhi.
The operation involving some 30,000 army men, paramilitary and police personnel started before dawn with house-to-house searches in Shopian, some 50 km from here.
Drones and helicopters hovered above the sparsely populated villages spread between sprawling orchards of apples in Shopian. Security personnel stood guard on roads and entry points, preventing people from coming or going out of their areas.
As schools were closed, men, young and old, were told to gather in central areas of villages.
“We were told to move out of our houses early in the morning. We saw army men all around as if a war had broken out. We didn’t know what was happening,” Syed Arsalan, 20, a student told IANS over phone from Shopian.
Residents in at least three villages resisted the operation and came out to protest with stones. But the demonstrations were quelled with tear smoke. There were no injuries.
A police officer said the operation was a hunt for militants responsible for the killing of political activists and security personnel and those blamed for snatching of weapons as well as bank robberies.
Shopian and its neighbouring Kulgam district, where on Monday five policemen and two bank guards were killed, have turned out to be new breeding ground for militants since last year after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani.
Last week, at least two video clips appeared on social networking sites with gun toting militants in battle fatigues marching in apple orchards in what appeared to be the landscape of Shopian.
Bank robberies were also committed in the south Kashmir district — home to some 266,000 people.
A senior police officer told IANS: “The operation is part of a routine anti-militancy and area domination exercise in south Kashmir. Such operations will continue till we are able to completely sanitize (rid areas of militants) south Kashmir.”
There were reports that Umar Majeed, a militant commander operating in south Kashmir, was hiding in the cordoned region. Police have announced a reward of Rs 10 lakh for the arrest of Majeed who allegedly masterminded the Monday killings in Kulgam.
Meanwhile, students in noth Kashmir’s Sopore town shouted slogans and stoned security forces. At least 10 students were reportedly injured in baton charges and firing of tear smoke.
They were protesting against an Army officer who allegedly beat a woman three days back.