Two decorated army officers — a colonel and a major — and a deputy superintendent of police were killed on Wednesday in an encounter with terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district, with a burst of gunfire ending the relative calm in the valley where terror attacks had significantly declined and were at their lowest during the last five years, officials aware of the matter said.
The officers killed in action were identified as Colonel Manpreet Singh, the commanding officer of 19 Rashtriya Rifles, Major Aashish Dhonchak, also from the same battalion, and DSP Humayun Muzamil Bhat, who was recently posted to the area, the officials said, asking not to be named.
The last time a commanding officer was killed in action in Jammu and Kashmir was three years ago when Colonel Ashutosh Sharma (along with Major Anuj Sood, two army jawans and a sub inspector) fell to terrorists’ bullets in Kashmir’s Handwara area.
The army and the police launched a joint operation on Tuesday night after receiving intelligence about terrorist movement and their likely hideout in Anantnag’s Garol, a forested area, Hindustan Times has learnt. The combat-ready teams, consisting of counterterror specialists, came under heavy automatic fire when they were closing in on the unspecified number of well-trained terrorists, resulting in serious injuries to the officers, said one of the officials cited above.
The three men later succumbed to their injuries at the army’s base hospital in Srinagar.
The possibility of the anti-terror squads being lured into the area has not been ruled out, the officials said, adding that a group of up to four terrorists were involved in the attack.
There was no official update on the operation from the army except a post on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday afternoon.
“Op Garol, #Anantnag. Based on specific intelligence on presence of terrorists a Joint Operation was launched by #IndianArmy & @JmuKmrPolice on the intervening night of 12-13 Sep in Area Garol, Anantnag. Contact established and firefight ensued. Two Army personnel and one J&K Police personnel injured. Operation in progress,” the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps wrote on X.
The operation was on when this report was filed on Wednesday night.
Both Singh and Dhonchak were from the Sikh Light Infantry, had earned their spurs in the valley and were decorated with Sena Medal for their heroism in counterterror operations. While Singh, then a lieutenant colonel with the same battalion, was awarded the medal on Independence Day 2021, Dhonchak’s bravery was acknowledged with a Sena Medal only a few weeks ago, on August 15.
It is not uncommon for commanding officers of counterterrorism units to direct operations from the ground. Several of them have been killed in action in Jammu and Kashmir while leading their men from the front and keeping them out of harm’s way.
After the three officers were injured, the army and police rushed reinforcements to the encounter site located in the forest belt of Kokernag in Anantnag and the entire area was sealed off, said a second official.
Lieutenant General Rajiv Ghai, General Officer Commanding, HQs 15 Corps (Chinar Corps), J&K director general of police Dilbag Singh and additional director general of police Vijay Kumar also rushed to the encounter site.
The incident comes at a time when calm was steadily returning to the valley, according to data tabled by the government in Parliament.
Jammu and Kashmir recorded only 30 “terrorist-initiated incidents” till July 31 this year, compared to 125 last year, 129 in 2021, 126 in 2020, 153 in 2019 and 228 in 2018, the data shows. Similarly, there were 24 encounters/counterterror operations till July 31 this year, compared to 117 last year, 100 in 2021, 118 in 2020, 102 in 2019 and 189 in 2018. While 11 security personnel were killed till July 31 this year, the figure stood at 32, 42, 63,80 and 91 in the previous five years.
The attack comes a month after three soldiers — Havildar Babulal Haritwal, Signalman Vala Mahipalsinh Pravinsinh and Rifleman Waseem Sarwar were killed in an encounter in Kulgam’s Halan forest. That operation was also launched after specific inputs were received about the presence of terrorists in the area. The terrorists, believed to be foreigners, are still at large.
Also, five Indian soldiers were killed and an officer wounded in a terror attack in Rajouri’s Kandi forest area in May, with the attack suspected to have been carried out by the same group of terrorists who had attacked an army truck and killed five soldiers on April 20 in Poonch. The deaths of 10 soldiers in two ambushes in the same area in a span of two weeks had triggered concern in army circles.