Winter infiltration tests LoC defences

Praveen Swami

Lashkar and Jaish cadres replenish terror ranks ahead of polls

The new infiltrators are geared for high-altitude survival

Lashkar started testing India’s LoC defences in 2008

SRINAGAR: This week, tens of thousands of police personnel will fan out across Jammu and Kashmir to guard the Lok Sabha elections from any threats, in particular jihadist assaults.

But their adversaries also seem to be prepared. Guided by global positioning system equipment, and specially geared for high-altitude survival, a new wave of infiltrators has succeeded in an enterprise that conventional wisdom has held to be impossible: crossing the Line of Control when the passes across the mountains are still carpeted by snow that is upwards of 40 feet thick.

Last month Jammu and Kashmir saw some of the most intense fighting in years. In one instance, Indian troops were pitted against a group of up to 25 Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad cadre who had traversed the snowfields that separated their base near Athmuqam and the Rajwar forests.

Despite losing seven soldiers in an ambush, troops of the 1 Paracommando Regiment succeeded in killing five terrorists, which forced the group to disperse. Later, police and Army personnel hunted down six more terrorists in villages around Handwara.

In addition, soldiers from 22 Rashtriya Rifles eliminated seven members of the group at Drangyari, close to the LoC.

But the interception of the group did not stem the surge in infiltration. Last week, at least 16 Hizb ul-Mujahideen operatives pushed their way through the snow-covered Kanzalwan forests of Gurez and headed towards Bandipora. Troops have made fire contact twice with the group, killing at least two terrorists, but there has been no sign of the rest of it.

Eight Lashkar terrorists are believed to have crossed the LoC moving towards Trehgam. Other groups are known to be preparing to cross the Sonapindi Pass from Kel into Macchel.

New tactics

Believed to have been crafted by a Lashkar commander, known only by the aliases Muzammil and Yusuf, the winter-infiltration strategy seems to be based on a careful study of India’s LoC defences.

Kashmir has traditionally seen infiltration in late spring and early summer, after the snow on the mountains melts. The Army’s Srinagar-based XV Corps prepares for this seasonal offensive by pushing additional troops forward, putting up barbed wire and planting electronic sensors. When the passes are snowed over, though, the Army and jihadist groups shifted their energies to the southern stretches of the LoC, in Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu.

Last year, the Lashkar began testing India’s winter defences in Kashmir. Infiltrators probed the Keran and Lolab sectors in late- February 2008, leading to the death of at least five Lashkar and Jaish cadres.

Later, in March 2008, a larger Lashkar group crossed into Handwara — but it lost at least three men while trying to ford a river in sub-zero temperatures.

But enough number of infiltrators evidently made the winter passage to encourage Muzammil to plan this year’s infiltration plans. India’s intelligence services estimate that more than 300 cadres from the major jihadist groups have been trained for cold-weather infiltration.

Lashkar spokesperson Abdullah Ghaznavi — which is a pseudonym for Lahore-based Abdullah Muntazar, spokesperson for the Lashkar’s parent religious group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa — has publicly exulted in the success of the strategy. “The gun-battles should serve as a message to India,” he said in a recent statement, “that the struggle for Kashmir’s freedom is not over.”

Back in January, after the Lashkar was compelled to close its offices and training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, its language was very different. “If the world listens to our cries and plays its role in resolving the Kashmir issue,” he said, “there is no point in continuing fighting.”

Perhaps the most stark about-turn has been made by the patriarch of the Islamist movement in Jammu and Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani — whose anti-election campaign will be helped should the violence escalate.

In July 2008, empowered by the communally-charged protests that were sweeping the State, Mr. Geelani insisted that the “struggle should be peaceful.” He further claimed: “We need neither the gun of the mujahideen now, nor the support of Pakistan.”

But at a rally in southern Kashmir on March 29, Mr. Geelani insisted that “armed struggle is the backbone of our struggle. Our issue is internationally acclaimed because of the sacrifices of its martyrs. Such people are our heroes, way ahead of those involved in the political struggle for freedom.”

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