Encounter stretches into fifth day

GHATTI (KATHUA) SEPT. 6. Five full days into the massive counter-terrorist operation in the Ghatti forests near Kathua in the Jammu region, senior military personnel are voicing concern that at least some of the seven terrorists interdicted on Tuesday may have escaped a joint Army, Central Reserve Police Force and Jammu and Kashmir Police cordon.

Highly-placed sources told The Hindu that a night-long effort on Friday to draw fire from the terrorists believed to be hiding in the forest has drawn no results. After a joint meeting of the force commanders, the Army decided to periodically fire blindly into the forest, hoping that the hiding terrorists would respond. The other forces were ordered to hold fire to ensure that any responsive fire did indeed originate from the terrorists and not police or paramilitary personnel.

There has now been no confirmed fire from the terrorist group since Thursday night. Earlier, fire from inside the Ghatti forests was sporadic. Typically, several single Kalashnikov bullets were fired, rather than the long bursts enabled when the weapon is put in automatic mode. Terrorists often switch to single-shot mode to conserve ammunition. Eyewitnesses at Ghatti village had earlier told the Army and police that the terrorists were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, and another weapon which could either be a tripod-mounted sniper rifle or a machine gun.

To add to the forces' problems, air operations to pinpoint the possible location of terrorists have been unsuccessful. Over the last 48 hours, the Army has flown at least half a dozen helicopter surveillance flights. None has reported spotting anyone in the dense forest undergrowth. The Jammu and Kashmir Director-General of Police, Gopal Sharma, personally flew over the area but did not detect the presence of terrorists or their hideouts.

Physical searches of the area, which continued through the day, yielded little. Part of the problem is that the Army search parties have focussed on paths through the forest, not the dense cluster of trees and bushes along them. The tactic is intended to avoid unnecessary casualties in ambushes. Yet, until the actual bushes are searched, there is no way to confirm whether the terrorists were killed in early fighting, or have succeeded in escaping the 2.5 km cordon laid along the south bank of the Ujh river, which empties into Pakistan.

Contrary to some reports, however, such long operations are not unusual. In July last year, after the massacre of Hindu slum residents in Jammu's Rajiv Nagar area, police spent 17 days combing the sprawling Raika forests in search of two Lashkar-e-Taiba suspects and Pakistani nationals Mohammad Adnan and Mohammad Abdullah. The former Jammu Senior Superintendent of Police, Farooq Khan, used the services of local Gujjar herdsmen to comb the forests, hoping they would eventually make contact with the hidden terrorists.

The plan worked. Once the herdsmen reported the presence of the terrorists, over 100 policemen hacked their way through the undergrowth with machetes for several days. Finally, one policeman was killed and two were injured when a group personally led by Mr. Khan confronted Mohammad Adnan at point-blank range. Adnan was killed in the exchange of fire, while Mohammad Abdullah later surrendered after police threatened to set the bushes in which he was hiding on fire.

Other operations, such as the month-long 1995 Army cordon of Chrar-e-Sharif, have lasted even longer. In that case, however, the terrorists succeeded in breaking through a cordon the top Army commanders had repeatedly claimed was impenetrable. The leader of the terrorists holed up in Chrar-e-Sharif, Mast Gul, was recently arrested on criminal charges in Pakistan.

Should a similar escape have taken place in Ghatti, it would be a source of considerable embarrassment to the security establishment. Army commanders The Hindu spoke to privately complained that the massive media presence at Ghatti, as in Chrar-e-Sharif, was placing them under pressure to show quick results, opening up the prospects of errors of judgment.

Searches are set to resume tomorrow morning. Briefing the press, Brigadier Atul Gupte, who moved to reinforce the initial police cordon with troops from the Mamoon cantonment at Pathankot, near Punjab, said "deliberate and careful progress" would be made.

Officials are pinning hopes on an intercepted terrorist communication, which said that five terrorists had been killed and two injured in the early fighting in Ghatti. Since then, however, there have been a series of contradictory communications intercepts, perhaps intended to confuse Indian signals intelligence.

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