J&K on brink of communication breakdown after Sopore, Srinagar fall to Lashker-i-Islam threat

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It all began on May 25, when some unidentified gunmen fired at the workers manning a BSNL outlet at Iqbal market in Sopore, killing one, and critically injuring the other two.  It was a second attack of such a nature within this area, in less than 48 hours. Earlier, they had hurled a grenade at a residential compound where a mobile transmission tower was installed. The attacks followed by threats through posters, which called on people who had rented out their land to mobile towers, to cancel their leases. Similarly, the people dealing with phone recharging, were warned to shut down their business.  Nobody had taken the posters seriously, but, with the killing of Mohammad Rafiq, 26, a resident of Handwara area of Kupwara district, the compliance followed instantly.

More attacks followed thereafter. This time, militants barged into a house in Dooru, on the outskirts of Sopore, and shot dead one Ghulam Hassan Dar, who had a transmitting tower on his land. The day after, wide swathes of North Kashmir plunged into a complete communication breakdown. The attacks were owned by a little known militant outfit called, Lashker-I-Islam.

With North down, Lashker now has  Srinagar in its cross-hairs. Recently,  gunmen hurled a grenade at a tower at Habba Kadal in downtown Srinagar, injuring one. The attack  spread instant scare and by the evening, all mobile services in the city were severely affected. To assert  control, Lashker gave one day warning to telecom operators to wind up, or face attacks.

“From now, if telecommunication networks, recharge service vendors, tower land owners don’t stop their work we will take action against them. They have only one day to wind up their work,” the outfit’s field operation spokesman, Gazi Abu Sariq, said in a statement released to a local news agency, KNS.

Sariq justified the attacks citing the use of telecommunications by security agencies to track down and kill  senior militant commanders. “This has caused much damage to the movement,” he told the local news agency.

This sudden turn in the situation for the worse, has puzzled people who see little rationale for shutting down telecommunications in the Valley. Significantly, the Hurriyat and the militant groups, have distanced themselves from the attacks with hardline Hurriyat chairman, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, loudest in his condemnation. On Sunday, he called an emergency meeting of his Hurriyat faction, fellow separatist groups, and civil society members to deliberate the deteriorating situation. The meeting was termed “extraordinary and important”.

“They (Lashker-I-Islam) have murdered two people and created confusion in the society,” Geelani told reporters at the end of the meeting. Incidentally, Dooru where Ghulam Hassan Dar was killed, is Geelani’s native village.

He also urged the militant conglomerate United Jihad Council to reveal the “truth” about the attacks. Earlier JKLF supremo, Yasin Malik, had also asked the Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin to probe the killings. Similarly, in their separate statements, Hizb and Lashker too, denied their involvement in the attacks.

Separatist groups also saw the attacks as the corollary of the Defence minister  Manohar Parrikar’s recent statement that, the Government will prefer terrorists to kill terrorists – Kante se Kanta Nikalna policy – rather than involving security personnel in the job. “We have to neutralise terrorists through terrorists only. Why can’t we do it? We should do it. Why does my soldier have to do it?” Parrikar said.

But such condemnations have hardly lent any clarity to the development. Lashker-i-Islam has since responded by warning the separatist groups not to interfere in their affairs. “We want to tell you, do not take part in the funeral procession of any martyr and never do politics by lecturing on these occasions,” the statement said. “Stop playing politics over the blood of martyrs. We will not accept it”.

A senior police officer said the attacks were the handiwork of the militant groups. “For them, it is a short cut to destabilizing the Valley,” the officer said. “And for us, it is a huge security challenge to deal with the situation. It will be impossible to secure each and every telecom tower and to assure recharge vendors of the security”.

Police has another explanation for the attacks: the recovery from a telecom tower of a “rigged Kenwood wireless set”, used by the militants to bypass easy-to-track mobile cellular services. “The attacks began soon after the equipment was removed,” a police officer said.

A glimpse of how the situation is playing out on the ground is in evident in Sopore. An endemic scare is palpable in the town, which remains a militant stronghold. Fewer people dare to carry their cellphones with them, let alone call anybody in public – if at all their phones have calling credit and signal strength to do so. The curfew is starts at nightfall and remains in place until dawn, even forcing several mosques to advance the time of the evening prayers, by half an hour.” As dusk falls,  you will find the streets of Sopore deserted, “says Bilal Ahmad Dar, a resident.

Security agencies attribute the new militant assertion to the renewed strength in their ranks. According to an Army estimate, in 2010, around 70 local youth joined the militant ranks, the highest in the past few years, with most of them joining Lashker-i-Toiba. It is now apprehended, that this year has seen more youth recruiting for jihad. “There are reports that the militants have expanded their base outwards from their hubs in Sopore, Tral and Shopian,” said a police officer.

As an example of this revival, in past week alone, there have been three cases of rifle snatching from the police men, in South Kashmir. The modus operandi is that the militants shoot at a cop and then decamp with his gun.

Alarmed by the unfolding situation, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed,  called a high level security meeting to discuss the law and order situation. He directed the Director General of Police to take all possible steps to thwart any attempt to disrupt cellular networks in Valley and provide security to mobile tower installations and owners.

“Modern-day functioning in Government, Banking, Tourism, Education, and other vital sectors, in particular, old-age pension and e-transfer of insurance claims and compensation to flood-affected victims are totally dependent on internet connectivity,” Sayeed said, according to an official handout.  “We will take steps that this doesn’t happen. People cannot be pushed into stone age”.

A lot hinges now, on Srinagar. If the city, which is also the state’s summer capital, falls to militant threat and suffers the communications breakdown, as looks imminent, it will create a crisis of egregious proportions for the state and the central government – an objective that militants are now understood to be pursuing “for a tactical victory and a dramatic re-assertion of their presence in Kashmir”.

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