The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Soldiers shepherds for nightmare ride
- Army in one of riskiest peace time missions

New Delhi, April 6: The Indian Army will tomorrow shepherd a busload of civilians through hostile territory in one of the riskiest peace time military operations in recent history.

The road to Muzaffarabad and an elusive peace in Kashmir is a nightmarish scenario for any army, mined as it is with the threat from militants who are not backed by any state.

This afternoon's attack on and the burning of the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar has only underscored the threat. Every country, including the US, is fearful of militants who are non-state actors.

In Kashmir, the Indian government has so far said the militants are backed by Pakistan. But the bus service is the consequence of an agreement between New Delhi and Islamabad. Prima facie, Pakistan does not support the militants.

In the wake of the fidayeen attack today, army headquarters was asked for an update on the security situation. There was even pressure from the political leadership on the army for a 'security guarantee'. The army top brass is understood to have said that such a guarantee is unrealistic.

The bus will be driven through terrain that can be deceptive. A small improvised explosive device with a timer can prove to be deadly as can a sniper on a hill top.

The army's task is to 'sanitise' the Jhelum Valley Road ' the road from Srinagar to the Kaman Bridge on the LoC. Commanders with decades of experience in counter-insurgency operations and with knowledge of the terrain are hesitant to use the term 'sanitise'. But they have told the political leadership the army will do 'everything possible'.

The reason the army is hesitant to use the word 'sanitise' is military. Given the political environment and topography through which the road runs, a 100 per cent security guarantee is impossible.

The army told the government that it was occupying vantage positions in the hills through which the road cuts, sending road opening patrols (ROPs) to check for mines and improvised explosive devices and patrols through spots in the hills that give a vantage view of the road. It was also conducting helicopter sorties.

Despite the risk, army headquarters is in favour of the bus running as scheduled. It feels an attack on the bus will alienate the militants from the people. Plus, the bus service is practically, apart from the LoC ceasefire, a Kashmir-specific confidence-building measure with Pakistan that can stabilise the security situation in the long term.

Without a shade of doubt, the attack is an embarrassment for the security establishment. Also, it has struck fear in the hearts of the passengers. There was no way of knowing what the passengers who have got entry permits and have booked tickets are saying. They are in 'the safe custody' of security forces, chiefly the CRPF.

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