While police said the civilians were killed when they came “dangerously close” to the site of the encounter, eyewitnesses said they were killed more than an hour after the gunfight. At least 23 other civilians are reported to have been injured.
Seven civilians, including two minors, were killed when security forces opened fire on protesters after an encounter in which three militants and an Armyman were killed at Sirnoo village in Pulwama district of South Kashmir on Saturday morning. While police said the civilians were killed when they came “dangerously close” to the site of the encounter, eyewitnesses said they were killed more than an hour after the gunfight. At least 23 other civilians are reported to have been injured.
“A search operation was launched jointly by the security forces, based on a credible input about the presence of terrorists,” J&K Police said in an official release. “While the operation was going on, a crowd which came dangerously close… to the encounter site got injured. The injured were evacuated to hospital, where unfortunately seven persons succumbed to their injuries… The loss of civilians is deeply grieved,” it said.
But Bashir Ahmad Bhat claimed his 14-year-old son, Aaqib Ahmad Bhat, who was among those killed, left for the encounter site about an hour-and-a-half after the shootout, after hearing that three militants had been killed. “I woke him up after we heard the gunshots,” said Bhat. “Once the firing was over, he went outside. I asked him where he was going and he said he would go to the street outside,” he said.
When he heard that many people had been injured in the firing on protesters, Bhat and other villagers rushed to the hospital to offer help. “At the hospital, I heard some people saying that one body had not been identified. I thought I would just take a look to see if I could identify it,” said Bhat. “When I went inside, my son was lying dead on a stretcher. A bullet had pierced his head,” he said.
Eyewitnesses said that after the encounter, some youths blocked the roads and threw stones at police and army personnel. “At the security blockade, an Army vehicle was hit by stones. The Army personnel opened indiscriminate fire without even a warning shot,” alleged a protestor. “They fired directly at the people… Most of the people were hit on the head, neck and chest,” he claimed.
“We received 30 people at the hospital. Six of them were brought dead… Most of the injured were hit above the waist. We referred 16 of the seriously injured patients to Srinagar (hospitals),” said Dr Abdul Rashid Parra, Medical Superintendent, Pulwama District Hospital.
Liyaqat Ahmad Dar (17), the second minor victim, was also shot in the head. A resident of Parigam village, about 9 km from the encounter site, Liyaqat helped his father, a milkman, to collect milk in the morning. “After helping him, he returned home to have tea,” said his uncle, Sonaullah Dar. “He then left home without saying anything. We later received a call that he had been injured. When we reached the hospital, he had already died,” he said.
The other five civilians killed were: Abid Hussain (28), a management graduate from Karimabad, Pulwama, who leaves behind his Indonesian wife and a three-month old daughter, Tauseef Ahmad Mir (29), a resident of Urichersoo village, Shahbaz Ahmad of Monghama village, Suhail Ahmad of Bellow village, and Amir Ahmad Pal (16) of Ashmander village.
Army deserter Zahoor Ahmad Thoker was among the three militants killed in the encounter. Thoker had gone missing from his unit in Baramulla district in July last year. He had decamped with his service rifle, and joined the militant ranks. The other two militants who were killed have been identified as Tahir and Hashim, both locals.
Meanwhile, J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik, who convened an emergency security review meeting, directed Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Baseer Ahmad Khan to probe the killings. “Governor expressed grief over the loss of lives during the anti-militancy operation in Sirnoo area of Pulwama district today, in which 7 civilians died after post-operation clashes,” said an official statement. “Governor also directed Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, to inquire the incident… and suggest precautions to minimise civilian casualties in anti-militancy operations,” it said.
The deaths of civilians were condemned across the mainstream-separatist political divide in the Valley. “How long are we going to shoulder the coffins of our youngsters… No country can win a war by killing its own people,” tweeted former Chief Minister and PDP president Mehbooba Mufti.
“The administration of Governor Malik has one task & one task only — to focus on the security of the people of J&K & restore peace to a troubled valley. Sadly it appears that’s the only thing the administration is not doing. Publicity campaigns & full page ads don’t bring peace,” tweeted National Conference (NC) vice-president Omar Abdullah.
Peoples Conference leader Sajad Lone, a BJP ally, called for action against the security forces. “The preparedness of security forces would, in the Pulwama context, be the ability to make a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. If you end up killing 7 civilians in order to kill 3 militants, it is time for heads to roll. We can’t afford a state of impunity,” he said.
Separatists have called a three-day shutdown from Sunday. “Bullets and pellets rain as Govt of India has decided to kill Kashmiris through its Armed Forces who control us. JRL (Joint Resistance Leadership) and people will march towards Badami Bagh Army cantonment on Monday, 17 Dec, to ask GOI to kill all of us at one time rather than killing us daily,” tweeted Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.