‘Assalamualaikum’: How one word changed the course of Handwara encounter

A phone call to Colonel Ashutosh Sharma that was answered by a terrorist, in all likelihood by one of the two men found dead at the end of the 13-hour-long encounter, changed the course of the bloody gunfight in north Kashmir’s Handwara. That phone call told the scores of soldiers and police officers waiting around the house in Handwara’s Chanjmulla locality that they had probably taken a hit.

Col Ashutosh Sharma, the 44-year-old commanding the 21 Rashtriya Rifles battalion, had entered the house with company commander Major Anuj Sood, 30, Naik Rajesh Kumar, 29, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh, 24, and J&K Police Sub Inspector Sageer Pathan aka Qazi, 41, a little after 5.30 pm. They succeeded in getting the family that was stuck in the house out, but were trapped. But there was no sign of the security personnel.

“Between 6 pm and 10 pm, we tried every way we could think to get in touch with him or other members of the team. But couldn’t,” a senior Jammu and Kashmir police officer told HT.

Four hours later, at about 10 pm, someone finally answered.

‘Assalamualaikum’, the man on the other end of the line said.

“Our officers figured that there was only one way they could have gotten hold of his phone,” a top Jammu and Kashmir police officer told HT on conditions of anonymity.

The firing, which had been suspended, resumed.

It continued all night till the early hours of Sunday. This time, there was no reason for the security forces to hold themselves back.

In the early part of the encounter, they had their hands tied behind their back as they had to ensure that the family, that according to intelligence inputs was being held hostage, wasn’t harmed. Once Col Sharma and his team got them out, their safety was their prime concern.

The firing stopped only around daybreak.

When security forces finally entered the house, they found the two terrorists; dead. One of them has been identified as Haider, a Pakistani national who had been a top commander of the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying tributes to the soldiers.

“Tributes to our courageous soldiers and security personnel martyred in Handwara. Their valour and sacrifice will never be forgotten. They served the nation with utmost dedication and worked tirelessly to protect our citizens. Condolences to their families and friends,” PM Modi said in a tweet.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described it as “deeply disturbing and painful”.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat stressed that the anti-terror operation highlighted the determination of the security forces to safeguard the lives of the people of Kashmir.

Source : Hindustan Times


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