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Confused soldiers kill two colleagues

Imphal, Oct. 9: A counter-insurgency operation in the darkness of the wee hours went horribly wrong for the Assam Rifles in Manipur, with one group of soldiers mistaking another for militants and gunning down two colleagues while the real targets lurked elsewhere.

The incident occurred around 3am today at Kakching Khunou Lamkhai in Thoubal, 32km from the state capital, after seven columns of the Assam Rifles’ 21 Battalion converged on the area from different directions. As they advanced gingerly in the dark, a moment of confusion led soldiers in one of the ambush units to react to movements on the opposite side with a volley of gunfire.

The other unit retaliated instantly, turning an elaborately planned operation against militants of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (Prepak) into target shooting among themselves. By the time either side realised their folly, Havildar Satpal Singh and Rifleman Dharampal Singh lay dead. Two more riflemen, Ramesh Kumar and Man Bahadur, were critically wounded.

Kumar and Bahadur were evacuated to the army hospital at Leimakhong, the headquarters of the 57 Mountain Division, located about 25km from Imphal.

An Assam Rifles spokesman, Maj. Shamsher Jung, said the exchange of fire between the troops was the result of misunderstanding in a tense situation. “The troops found it difficult to recognise one another in pitch darkness. It was purely a case of mistaken identity.”

The soldiers involved in the operation were drawn from Assam Rifles posts at Kakching Khunou and Pangaltabi, also in Thoubal district.

Militants of the outfit against which the operation was launched killed six CRPF personnel and an Assam Rifles jawan in two attacks since September 30. Both these incidents were part of Prepak’s routine strategy of targeting security personnel in the days leading to its “raising day”.

The soldier who died in the September 30 ambush was from the battalion that botched the operation today. Soldiers of this very battalion have also been accused of assaulting civilians in the wake of the ambush, which occurred at Umathel village.

The spearhead of Manipur’s campaign against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Irom Sharmila, started her fast-unto-death seven years ago after a similar instance of Assam Rifles personnel targeting civilians in retaliation to an attack by militants. As many as 10 villagers died in that incident at Malom, near Imphal airport.

The army act, which remains in force in Manipur and other states of the Northeast despite the Delhi-constituted Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee recommending alternatives, vests extraordinary powers on security forces.

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