Houses caught fire in Shopian encounter ‘because of stacked dry grass’, not us, says Army

Srinagar: The Army has denied allegations that security personnel forced a Shopian family to set fire to its own home during a three-day-long encounter earlier this month, in which two militants were killed.

The encounter, which lasted from 13 to 15 March in Rawalpora village marked, the most intense violence Kashmir has seen since the clashes that erupted after the killing of Riyaz Naikoo last May. Several residents of nearby villages converged on Rawalpora and indulged in stone-pelting, allegedly to aid the escape of the militants.

The two militants killed in the encounter were identified by the police as Jahangir Wani of the Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) and Vilayat Lone, one of the most senior commanders of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). No civilian lives were lost in the operation, conducted jointly by Jammu & Kashmir Police and the Army, which led the security forces to dub it a success.

However, by the time the encounter ended, several homes had sustained damage, with at least five gutted. One family told ThePrint that security personnel forced them to pour kerosene on their home and set it on fire. The security personnel suspected a militant to be holed up inside, but none was found on the premises, the family said.

In a statement emailed to ThePrint Sunday, the Army detailed the circumstances under which the encounter was launched, saying its personnel had targeted the “ancestral and abandoned” family homes of Lone, a native of Rawalpora. The homes, they added, were packed with dry grass that caught fire during the gun battle. The possibility that the militants may have set the fires to create commotion wasn’t ruled out.

“All the civilians in the area of the operation site were evacuated to a safe place well in advance to avoid any loss of civil life and avoid any collateral damage,” the Army said.

‘Security forces controlled spread of fire’

According to the Army, a cordon and search operation was launched at the Lone family homes on 13 March, following specific intelligence inputs. The inputs stated that Lone was using these abandoned houses as a “hide”.

“As per laid down SOP, all the civilians in the area of the operation site were evacuated to a safe place well in advance to avoid any loss of civil life and avoid any collateral damage,” the Army said.

Contact was then established “with the terrorists on the second floor of a house on 13 March and at night one terrorist was eliminated”.

“The operation was carried out in a deliberate manner and continued till 15 March to avoid any collateral damage to life and property… The second terrorist was located and eliminated on 15 March and after a detailed search the operation was called off,” the Army said.

The abandoned houses, the Army added, “were being used as dry grass storage and had a well-concealed terrorist hide (sic) which was constructed by bricks and hollow cement blocks inside the house where terrorists were found during the operation”.

Photographs mailed by the Army showed what appeared to be a brick structure built inside a home. The green walls of the house seem to be covered in soot.

“As these houses were old, abandoned and completely stacked up with dry grass, they immediately caught fire due to the exchange of fire between terrorists and the security forces. Possibility of terrorists lighting up the fire to cause commotion and escape cannot be ruled out,” it said.

“Security forces pressed their fire extinguishers into service to control the spread of fire. The security forces had controlled the spread of fire before the arrival of fire tenders thus saving precious property in vicinity,” the email added. (The Print)

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