Hizbul Mujahideen on Monday named Mohammad bin Qasim as its “field operational commander” in Kashmir in place of Yaseen Yattoo who was killed on Sunday in a fierce gunbattle with security forces in Shopian district.
Qasim was made the new commander of Hizb at a meeting of the outfit’s command council chaired by Syed Salahuddin in Muzaffarabad ,in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a spokesman of the outfit said in a statement.
In a major jolt to Hizbul Mujahideen, its three militants including divisional operational commander Yasin Itoo, alias ‘Gaznavi’, were killed in an encounter ,which also claimed the lives of two army men ,in Shopian district of South Kashmir.
Along with Itoo, the security forces killed Umar Majeed, who hailed from Shopian, and Irfan, a tech-savvy militant involved in online propaganda for the militant outfit.
Following a tip-off to the local police, a cordon was laid in Awnira village of Shopian on the night of August 12 by the Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Jammu and Kashmir Police, Army and the CRPF.
The encounter started on Saturday evening in Zainpora area of Shopian, when a joint team of Rashtriya Rifles, CRPF and special operations group of the J&K police launched a cordon and search operation in the area. Militants opened fire at security forces wounding five Army personnel, two of whom later died.
“The injured were rushed to 92 Base Hospital at BB Cant . The martyred Army men were identified as Sepoy Gawai Sumedh Waman, 25, and Sepoy Ilayaraja P, also 25 years-old. The three injured including a Captain, are undergoing treatment in the hospital.
However, when the cordon was being put in place, residents of the village started pelting stones at the joint team. Sources said that while the militants and security forces opened fire, another group of militants started firing at the soldiers from outside the perimeter. “This is for the first time in over a decade that militants from outside the site of the gun battle have come to the help of their besieged associates,” said sources.
“I have never seen militants firing from such close range. The soldier who was killed was just ten metres ahead of me,” said a senior officer.
According to police sources, the firing by militants and the stone-throwing by local residents helped several other militants, including two other Hizb commanders Saddam and Altaf, escape. “The attack from outside was an attempt to help Ghaznavi escape but he could not break the cordon despite moving from one house to another. We have also recovered a Krinkov rifle,” said sources.
Itoo, from Budgam district of central Kashmir, had a long association with Hizbul Mujahideen and was involved in keeping alive the prolonged unrest of 2016 following the killing of group’s commander Burhan Wani in an encounter with security forces, besides recruiting several young men into the outfit, police said.
He was identified by his family members who were brought to the scene of the encounter by police from their residence in Budgam.
J&K police chief SP Vaid described the killing of Itoo as a “great success” and commended the police force for the “successful” operation. Itoo was one of the senior-most Hizb militants active in Kashmir and was designated divisional commander after Burhan Wani was killed last year.
“He was the anchor of the Hizbul Mujahideen’s activities and the only top commander preventing cadre from coming under the influence of Zakir Musa. For us, he was the most important catch,” said a senior police officer.
Itoo, often called a ‘vintage militant’ as he joined Hizbul Mujahideen in 1996, had surrendered in 2007 and later released on parole in 2014. He joined the militant group again and was its self-styled chief operations commander.
Srinagar based Defence spokesman, Colonel Rajesh Kalia said: “Army today paid befitting tributes to two of its comrades who attained martyrdom during Counter Terrorist operations in Shopian on 12 Aug 2017.
In a solemn ceremony at BB Cantt, Lt Gen JS Sandhu, Chinar Corps Commander and all ranks, paid homage to the martyrs on behalf of a proud nation. Representatives and officials from the State Government and other security agencies also joined in paying their last respects to the martyrs.”
“Martyr Sep Gawai Sumedh Waman, 25 years of age, had joined the Army in 2011 and hailed from village Lonagra in Akola, Maharashtra. He is survived by his Parents, one brother and one sister. Coming from village Kandani of Sivagangai district in Tamil Nadu, the young martyr Sep Ilayaraja P was also 25 years in age and had donned the uniform in 2012. He is survived by his parents, wife and sister”, he said.
The spokesman said: “The mortal remains of the martyrs were flown for last rites to their native places, where they would be laid to rest with full military honours. In this hour of grief, the Army stands in solidarity with the bereaved families of the martyrs and remains committed to their dignity and well being.”
Security forces estimate south Kashmir has about 90 terrorists active in the region. Sources say, security forces have been trying to target the leadership to weaken the network while also maintaining an active presence in areas considered safe havens for the terrorists.
In the last few months, security forces have carried out many successful operations and eliminated several wanted terrorists. However, in order to counter the issue from all sides, it is also important to prevent local youth from joining terrorist groups, police sources said.