NATIONAL

After troops cut, Marrah panel steps up patrolling

Staff Reporter

"We are in the thick of battle zone"

There are only 1,200 personnel, down from 2,400 We are the prime targets: panel member

Marrah (J and K): After troops reduction in this interior belt of Poonch district at the foothills of Pir Panjal, the village defence committee has intensified patrolling to thwart any militant attack.

Locals in this belt have led the civilian onslaught on militants. Says committee member Mushtaq Ahmed, 24: "We are living in the thick of the battle zone and every day, it is a question of survival. Reduction of troops has scarred us though we have intensified patrolling."

Two battalions

Previously, the entire belt was looked after by two battalions of 20 Rashtriya Rifles and 16 Rashtriya Rifles. Now the same area, from Dera Gali, which borders Rajouri district, to the Hill Kaka belt, which borders the Pulwama belt and the Ranjanti hills to the south, is taken care of only by the 16 Rashtriya Rifles battalion. There are 1,200 personnel, down from 2,400.

Fall in militant strength

The reduction follows an apparent decline in the militant strength in the area. Personnel monitoring intercepts told The Hindu that the militants were using in all 15 handsets, each of them by two or three persons. This meant the presence of a maximum of 45 militants, who were still a force.

Punjabi youth

Listening in to the intercepts, one could make out that the militants were Punjabi-speaking youth from Pakistan's Punjab province. Among them were Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders Saifullah, 30, and Abu Salma, 28, who have been active for over five years.

"We cannot take any chance as we are the prime targets of the militants," says Mohammad Riaz, 24, of the village defence panel.

In the 5,000-strong Marrah, about 275 persons have taken up arms against the militants. Marrah has one of the strongest village defence committees in Poonch district, having initiated civilian counter-militancy operations in 2003.

Its members are on the hit-list of the militants who, in a revenge act, killed 13 persons,mostly women and children, in July 2004.

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