The military vehicle attacked by terrorists in Poonch, April 21, 2023
ON APRIL 20, a truck carrying soldiers of the Indian Army was ambushed in Poonch in the Jammu division, resulting in the death of five soldiers. They belonged to the Army’s Rashtriya Rifles and were deputed in the area for counterinsurgency operations. According to sources, the truck was fired upon from three sides, followed by a grenade attack, in the region’s Bata-Doriya area, about 7km from the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan. It is believed that steel core bullets that can pierce an armoured shield were used in the attack.
Initially thought to be caused by lightning, the Army later confirmed that it was a terrorist attack. “It seems that the soldiers got no chance to retaliate as they were caught unawares with bullets hitting them from all sides,” said a police officer posted in the area. Investigation so far has revealed that there may have been two groups of terrorists of 7-8 members each involved in the attack, several of them Pakistanis. It is likely that they had local civilian support as well, according to investigators. Some of them are believed to have used a Maruti Alto car and, after the attack, disappeared in the dense forest in the region. As search operations involving special forces are in progress, about 50 people, many of them believed to be terrorist overground workers, have been picked up for questioning.
With this attack comes a certainty that Pakistan-based terrorist groups are now looking at reopening a new front in this part of Jammu and Kashmir that has seen relative peace after a major Army operation 20 years ago. The responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the terrorist organisation People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), which is essentially a front of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed. Intelligence sources believe that there are scores of terrorists waiting across to get into India. These are mainly from the Lashkar-e-Toiba. “It is very likely that this operation was done jointly by Jaish and Lashkar,” said an Army source.
The attack on the Army truck follows a massacre in the area on January 1 this year in Dangri village where terrorists lined up five Hindus and shot them dead. A day later, two more died in an IED blast set up by terrorists. Last year in October, nine soldiers were killed in two gunfights within four days in the same area.
The PAFF has released two pictures, showing the purported truck, and in another, a hand with a weapon with the caption, ‘Bright day… stalking the prey’. A source in Military Intelligence who shared the images with Open said that most likely one of the terrorists was wearing a body camera.
As the investigation advanced, the names of two terrorist handlers have come to the fore. These handlers have been identified as Rafiq Naii, who is originally from Poonch but now lives in Pakistan; the other is Sajid Jutt, a Pakistani resident. Jutt’s name came up first during October’s ambush on the Army.
The Army source said that they are exploring the possibility that the group that carried out the massacre in Dangri may have been responsible for this attack as well. The other possibility is that a new group of terrorists has infiltrated from across the LoC. That means there is a significant presence of terrorists in this area and they are still at large, capable of carrying out other attacks. Special forces are now combing through dense forests, and looking at culverts and caves which are a feature here and where terrorists are likely to have taken refuge.
But why has this front reopened? Police say that currently, beyond the odd targeted killings, terrorists in Kashmir Valley are not able to do much. But the police are on alert because Kashmir is going to host some G20 events towards the end of May. “After that, there will be Amarnath Yatra, which means we cannot let our guard down at all,” said a senior police officer. The officer said there was also an understanding that small-time actions did not garner the kind of attention that terrorist groups typically want. Hence, they are now looking at new areas where they can operate and carry out attacks, he said.
Defence analysts believe that Pakistan is facing a political crisis right now and would do anything to deflect tension from its affairs. “A Balakot-type of response by India would be taken as sufficient grounds to push back elections, which the Pakistan Democratic Movement government is trying to postpone from May to November this year,” said Lt General (retired) Syed Ata Hasnain, the former commander of the Army’s Srinagar Corps. However, that is unlikely to happen since this attack is not as big as the one in Pulwama, after which Balakot was attacked by India. Also, given that there are G20 events scheduled, and there is also going to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meet in Goa, retaliation by India is difficult. Be that as it may, it is also a message, Hasnain says, that the proxy war is only temporarily in suspense and it will return with a vengeance. Hasnain believed that the lower presence of troops may have led to increased terrorist activity in the area, as some of the troops from here had to be shifted to Ladakh along the Indo-China border.
The attack on April 20, said police, was very similar to an ambush that took place roughly in the same area in January 2001. The attack in the region’s Gambhir Muglan village on a police vehicle resulted in the death of 14 personnel of the Special Operations Group and two government health workers. Two years later, in 2003, the Army launched a massive operation called Operation Sarp Vinash, involving its three brigades, to bring down infrastructure created by terrorists in the upper reaches. In the operation, 64 hardcore terrorists were killed, most of them foreign. A huge cache of weapons was recovered, along with a whooping 7,000 kg of ration, indicating that the terrorists, whose original number is believed to have been around 350, were planning to stay put there for a longer haul. Sarp Vinash pushed them back and until recently, barring an incident here or there, this part of the Jammu division stayed free of terrorist activities. The renewed attacks since October last year, and now the latest attack on the truck, means there will be more action in these parts in the coming days.
As operations continue, there is a renewed fear among Hindus in the area that they might be targeted. After the Dangri episode, the village defence committees (VDCs) have been revived. Since the 1990s, VDCs were the first line of defence against terrorist attacks in the entire Jammu region. These comprised local volunteers who would guard remote villages where it took security forces days to reach. In light of the terrorist movement again in the south of Pir Panjal, VDCs are now being given training by the Central Reserve Police Force. This training has now also been extended to villages along Jammu’s International Border (IB) in Samba and Kathua districts.