Security forces take cover during the gunbattle in Srinagar on Wednesday. (AP)
Srinagar, March 13: Two mohalla cricketing sides had stepped into the field and were rolling out the mat when two unfamiliar, clean-shaven men carrying cricket kits walked towards them.
For a moment, it appeared two cricket enthusiasts were looking to play on the Police Public School ground in Srinagar, near a lifeline bypass connecting north and south Kashmir.
The two men then dropped the kits, removed their jackets and reached into the bags. Out came from the kits AK-47 guns and from the jackets ammunition.
By the time the guns fell silent after 30 minutes, five CRPF jawans and the two men lay dead and 10 persons, including three young players, were injured.
It was a fidayeen attack, the first in Srinagar in over three years and executed in a manner that makes every normal feature of civilian life a potential threat to the security forces.
When the gunfire began, a CRPF reserve party was killing time on the lawns, several jawans playing cards. The premises were considered one of the safest in Kashmir because the school is sandwiched between a CRPF camp and police residential quarters.
No child or teacher was in the school because of a shutdown called by separatists to seek the body of Afzal Guru, the Parliament attack convict who was hanged in New Delhi on February 16. Several factors that swirled around the fidayeen attack today appeared to suggest Afzal’s execution has made Kashmir a deeper quagmire for the security forces.
The CRPF reserve squad was awaiting deployment to quell the city’s stone-throwing protesters, whose ranks have swelled afresh after the hanging of Afzal.
The attack that began at 10.45am came weeks after top militant groups vowed to avenge the execution of Afzal.
The situation on the ground appeared so inflamed that some protesters threw stones at the security forces at Bemina, the site of today’s fidayeen attack, even when the operation against the militants was in progress.
Another target of the stones was a CRPF vehicle ferrying back from hospital jawans who donated blood for those injured in the attack. The CRPF opened fire and killed a youth, inflaming passions further.
One of the players on the field said the militants lobbed grenades and fired indiscriminately at the CRPF jawans. The scenes that unfolded resembled signature television footage from urban conflict zones — uniformed forces taking position, falling to the ground, rolling over, firing on the trot and screaming into what looked like mobile phones.
The bodies of some jawans lay on the ground. The telltale sign of the end to the battle came when jawans carried out the bodies of the militants, one wearing a red outfit.
“All of us knelt and feared our end has come. The firing and explosions left us breathless for some time. For just 10 seconds or so the firing stopped and some of us ran to the fence, climbed it and crossed to the other side. I now realise it was madness because we could have been shot while climbing,” he said, requesting not to be named.
On record, the players — all in the early twenties — refused to acknowledge that they saw the militants, probably for fear of being targeted by the security forces.
“I just wanted to save myself and my friends on the ground. I did not see the militants entering the play ground. I lost my senses because of the firing,” said Obaid, one of the injured youths.
Mudassir Wani, who was also injured, said he did not realise he was injured — possibly by splinters — when he began running out of the field.
“We were busy laying the mat on the pitch and blasts and gunfire rang out. We fled the spot. Some people came to my rescue and shifted me to the hospital after I saw blood oozing from my foot,” he said.
New Delhi blamed militants based in Pakistan. The homegrown Hizb-ul Mujahideen later claimed responsibility, though police suspect the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba may be involved. A caller identifying himself as Baleeg-ud-din, the spokesperson for Hizb, told a local news agency its men had carried out the attack.
A police officer claimed both fidayeen were Pakistanis. “To be doubly sure, we are also verifying the reports whether one of the militants was Hilal Molvi (a local militant commander). However, preliminary investigations reveal that both were Pakistanis,” he said.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah interrupted proceedings in the Assembly in Jammu to inform the House of the attack. “This morning, two fidayeen attacked a CRPF camp at Bemina in which five CRPF men were martyred. Two militants were also killed,” Omar said.
The Valley’s officiating police chief, Abdul Gani Mir, said the target of today’s attack was “peace”, referring to the sharp decline in militant attacks in the state in recent years.
Hundreds of police and paramilitary personnel rushed to the area to seal it and carry out search operations as the forces suspected that more militants might be hiding.
The last fidayeen attack in Srinagar was on January 6, 2010, when militants struck at the city centre. One policeman was killed and nine others were injured.