Srinagar, Sept. 24 (Agencies): Security forces today evacuated three policemen trapped inside a building held by two militants and blew it up to flush out the rebels, ending a night-long siege as the second phase of state polls began.
The militants had traded heavy fire with the troops since they entered the house near a heavily guarded polling office in Srinagar late on Monday. “The siege ended this morning when security forces blew up the house and moved in to secure it,” police said.
Once the policemen were rescued early this morning, the BSF launched a full-fledged operation against the militants, firing a barrage of mortars and detonating improvised explosive device that set the house ablaze.
As flames engulfed the three-storey white building, a militant jumped on to the roof of an adjacent garage, firing indiscriminately. He was brought down within seconds by sharpshooters. Soon the fire spread to the garage, consuming his body.
His companion, too, jumped to the ground floor from the burning building with his gun blazing. But the troops shot back, killing him. Two jawans were injured in the operation.
The building was still standing, but most of it had been gutted by the fire and a series of rocket and grenade blasts through the night. Fire brigade and security forces bided time to ensure that no danger lurked inside before moving in to sift through the debris. Residents were evacuated to safer places and the nearby polling stations were shifted to a college.
Police officials at the scene said the militants belonged to the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba. However, another pro-Pakistan militant outfit, Jamiat-ul Mujahideen, claimed responsibility for the 18-hour encounter that started around 6 last evening.
A Jamiat spokesman told local media that the gunbattle began when a police team intercepted four of its militants, including two Pakistanis, who were planning to carry out a suicide attack on the nearby CRPF camp.
But Mukesh Kumar, the south Srinagar superintendent of police who headed the operation, said the owner of the house told interrogators that the militants were staying in his house for the past two days and planned to target the nearby building from where polling material was to be distributed for today’s elections.
The Jamiat claimed later in the day that three of its four militants had returned to their hideouts. “We have resumed contact with the militants who reached their hideouts after the night-long encounter with the security forces,” the Jamiat spokesman told Nafa, a local news agency. While the militants were fleeing the house, one of them, a local, got separated from the group and was probably killed, he added.
Troops tasted success early in the day when the militants fell for a diversionary tactic and the three policemen inside the house escaped. “We engaged the militants in an exchange of fire from the rear which allowed the three police officials to escape from the house into a mobile bunker waiting outside around 6.30 in the morning,” Kumar said.
He also clarified that sub-divisional police officer Mohammad Yousuf, Rajbagh station house officer Bhagwant Singh and wireless operator Mohammad Ashraf were trapped inside and not held hostage by the militants as presumed earlier.
The three were trapped after the Rajbagh police station received a call last evening that some militants were present inside the house. When a four-member team raided the house, militants fired at them, killing constable Jagdev Singh. In the ensuing encounter, the three police officials took shelter in one of the rooms without the militants’ knowledge.
Residents of Srinagar woke to the chatter of guns and the boom of grenade blasts on the day they were to vote in a closely-watched elections. In Gogjibagh, people chose to stay indoors. Traditionally, the voter turnout has been low in this area.