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Army’s urban nightmare

New Delhi, Nov. 23: The killing of a major and the shooting of a colonel and a lieutenant-colonel in a two-day encounter in Srinagar that ended on Thursday evening illustrates the kind of heavy toll counter-insurgency in cities can take on military and civilian life.

In addition, a Central Reserve Police Force jawan, a civilian and two militants are said to have been killed after the army moved in to “take out” gunmen of an underground outfit, said to be Al-Mansooriyan, in a thickly-populated locality, about half-a-kilometre from the Badamibagh cantonment, headquarters of the 15 Corps that is based in the Kashmir valley.

For an army that has rich and frequent experience in combat in Kashmir, the bodies of two militants and a razed three-storey building are not enough reason for chest-thumping claims.

At the army headquarters in Delhi, where so many officers have served time in Kashmir, there is no hurry either to draw conclusions on trends in militancy in the Valley — whether it is going increasingly urban or whether this was just another footnote in a long history of encounters.

In Delhi, army commanders say the Indiranagar incident, in which the militants took shelter in a building of public sector telecom entity BSNL, was carried out surgically in order to avoid collateral damage or civilian casualties.

Giving a run-down of the events that climaxed with the killings and the burning down of the building, Major General Deepak Summanwar said here such incidents were on a par for the course because the army was restrained. “We did not use flame-throwers or rockets, weapons that could have ravaged the area,” he said.

According to his version, this is how the encounter played out:

Nov. 18, 6 pm: Two militants fire at a picket of the 62 battalion of the CRPF, killing one and injuring three others, near Badamibagh. Quick Reaction Teams give chase. The militants run into the BSNL office in Indiranagar, taking hostage an unknown number of people

By midnight, Nov. 18-19: Two companies of the army led by commanding officer Colonel P.C. Roy have taken up position. Colonel Roy, his second-in-command Lt Colonel Raghu Nair, company commanders Major J.P. Singh of 13 Rashtriya Rifles and Major Navneet Vats have asked their men to take positions and open fire only on specific orders and only at the building. A CRPF unit tells the army that militants have taken colleagues and two BSNL staffers hostage

Nov. 19, 2.20 am: The army rescues seven paramilitary personnel from the building as troops engage the militants with small-arms fire. The militants are firing from the terrace and from the first floor

Nov. 19, 4.30 am: Colonel Roy and another soldier is shot at. It is dark. The militants would not have known that they had hit the commanding officer. Summanwar says in such times, the troops have mostly taken position and are shielded from the fire but officers are exposed because they are mobile and supervising

Nov. 19, 1 pm: Major Singh is injured and evacuated. The army fits explosives to the building. The militants continue to fire from the second and third floors. A wait and watch game continues with intermittent firing

Nov. 20, 6.30 am: Major Vats of 32 Rashtriya Rifles is shot and killed. The explosives in the building blast. The first floor is in flames. Soldiers enter the building, search for remaining hostages and militants

Between 10 am and 3 pm: More explosives go off. The ground floor and an upper floor are burning. At 3.05 pm, the body of one militant is found. The building is brought down.

Summanwar said there was no firing from about 5 pm on Thursday. The building burnt through the night.

“Not once did we fire recklessly. Such operations may look minor but they are always prolonged because we make deliberate moves. We lost one officer and two more are injured but we have been able to save eight lives and prevent collateral damage,” he claimed.

An estimated 4,000 telephone lines in Kashmir have gone dead. “Our officers like to lead from the front so that soldiers are motivated and decisions can be made on the spot,” the army says of its operation.

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