Handwara encounter- Terrorists used Civilians as Human Shields

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After an intense gun battle that lasted for nearly 8 hours, an operation by security forces in Handwara town in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kupwara district has come to an end. According to news agency PTI, one Colonel, one major, two Army jawans and a police sub-inspector were killed in this encounter with militants.

Among those killed in the line of duty is the Commanding Officer of 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) unit, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma. He had been part of several successful counter-terrorism operations in the past. Colonel Sharma was the only commanding officer to have been decorated for gallantry a second time in Kashmir. He had received gallantry as a CO when he had saved the lives of his men by subduing a militant running towards them with a concealed grenade.

A joint operation was launched by the J&K Police and the Indian Army upon receiving Intel that civilians were being held hostage inside a home in Changimulla, Handwara. A team comprising five security personnel entered the target area occupied by militants. They successfully managed to extricate the civilians. However, the team came under heavy fire by militants in the process.

The Indian Army carried out a final assault at the first light of the day to neutralize militants hiding in the area. Re-enforcements were brought in and a door-to-door intervention was conducted as part of the standard operating procedure (SOP). Internet services were also snapped in Handwara as part of the operation.

The latest reports also suggest that the civilians stuck in the house have been evacuated safely. Two militants were killed as a result of the operation. According to Inspector-General of Police, Kashmir, Vijay Kumar, top Lashkar-e-Taiba commander ‘Haider’ was among the two militants killed during the operation. The identity of the second militant could not be ascertained.

It is to be mentioned that comprising officers and men from the Brigade of Guards, the 21 Rashtriya Rifles (21-RR) has earned the distinction of being called “Triple Centurions” for having killed over 300 terrorists.

Col Sharma, the commanding officer of the army’s 21 Rashtriya Rifles battalion, was leading the three army men and the sub-inspector and had been locked in a gunfight with the terrorists holed up inside a house in Rajwar forests. A team comprising of the five army and police personnel entered the target area occupied by the terrorists to evacuate the civilians. The terrorists came into the village near the forest as the operation was underway and went inside the house that had a cowshed near to it.

Col Sharma, who had been decorated for gallantry twice in Kashmir, Major Sood and sub-inspector Qazi took refuge inside a house as they thought that the terrorists were hiding inside the cowshed. The moment they went inside the house, a gunfight ensued. After that, there was no communication between the army teams outside the house and CO who had gone inside for a few hours.

Late in the night, assault teams of the army went inside the house late and recovered the bodies of all five security force personnel.

An Intelligence Bureau official told that Handwara falls along the infiltration point from the Leepa Valley. The Intelligence also says that several foreign terrorists have infiltrated into North Kashmir and are looking to recruit as many locals as possible. They want to build on the logistics and also expand the network of over ground workers.

In its three decades of combating terrorism, the 21 Rashtriya Rifles lost its second Commanding Officer on the line of duty when twice-decorated Colonel Ashutosh Sharma made the supreme sacrifice while rescuing civilians held hostage. The battalion had lost its first Commanding Officer, Colonel Rajinder Chauhan, on August 21, 2000. Twenty years later, it lost its second Commanding Officer in Colonel Ashutosh Sharma while fighting terrorists at Changimulla in Handwara tehsil of Kupwara district in North Kashmir. Both the Commanding Officers sacrificed their lives for the nation in the General Area of Rajwar forest, 80 kms from the summer capital of Srinagar, and a part of Handwara tehsil of Kupwara district in North Kashmir.

Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh said the Colonel and his team bravely rescued civilians held hostage by terrorists in Changimulla village. They gunned down the two terrorists in the encounter. A recipient of Sena Medal twice as a CO in Kashmir, a rare feat, Col Sharma was remembered by his colleagues and seniors as the most jovial officer who liked to spend time with his jawans. Col Chauhan, served the nation for more than 20 years, was the third CO of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles, a unit formed by the Army to fight militancy in the hinterland of Jammu and Kashmir.

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