Jammu/New Delhi, Sept. 8: Dejected soldiers returning from the Ghatti hills ran into inquisitive villagers wanting to know what happened to their operation.
The answer was provided by P.. Gupta, the inspector-general of police, Jammu.
“Thorough searches of forests by troops have been conducted and during these searches we have not come across any terrorist, dead or alive, and, therefore, it has been decided to call off the operation,” he said this evening.
After a seven-day operation, the army — working jointly with the police — brought the curtain down in what could either be a ruse to lull the opposition into believing the heat is off or in simple admission of failure.
The encounter with a group of militants — estimated at 10 — in the Ghatti hills of Kathua in south Jammu started last Tuesday afternoon.
Over 1,500 soldiers were pressed into service, forming a three-tier cordon — one fought, another gave cover and a third was in place to foil attempts to escape. The initial strategy was to starve out the militants.
For all this, it appears the troops have not been able to find even the footprints of the militants to arrive at a conclusion as to which direction they fled in.
The encounter was continuous till Thursday, and after that firing was intermittent. Till Friday, Brigadier Atul Guptey, in charge of the operation, said: “We will succeed.”
He even claimed wireless intercepts revealed that the militants needed help. One intercept he relayed to the media said: “Five of us have achieved martyrdom and we are surrounded by Indian troops.”
Yesterday evening, the army received on its wireless sets a mocking message from the militants: “What are you looking for' We have already escaped and (are) out of your reach.”
The response from the army was to throw more troops into scanning the jungles but without result. This is the first time in 14 years that the army has withdrawn from a counter-terrorist operation with nothing to show for it.
There were suggestions, however, that the army could be trying to mislead the militants by “calling off” the operation.
But, at the same time, the militants can also be using the ruse of wireless messages that would be intercepted to fool the security forces.
To an extent, they have succeeded because there is no definite assessment of their strength by the security forces.
Sources in the army even suggested “there has been a media overkill of the incident”.
People in the area, who have seen one policeman getting killed, are blaming the army for not involving village defence committee members.
“We knew the terrain and the places where the militants could have hidden, but no one bothered about us,” said Satish Sharma.