Today is the 11th day since 30-40 militants sneaked into Shala Bathu (Jackal Hill), on 23 September and took shelter in the crevices and caves that litter the landscape. The army detected their presence and engaged them in a long-drawn confrontation that shows no sign of an early end.
Shala Bathu is a 5 sq km cluster of abandoned habitations in the 2-3 km stretch between the Line of Control (LoC) and the border fencing. With an elevation of 8,000-9,000 m, the terrain is rugged and densely forested with thick, tall undergrowth.
Because of its tough terrain, Shala Bhathu had no Indian military presence. The army, sources say, has a strategically located post manned by a company of the 3/3 Gorkha Rifles on one side of the fence to keep a watch on the “no-man’s land” on the other side of the fence, up to the LoC. Yet, the presence of the militants in the area took them by surprise.
The army had earlier deployed landmines in the ghost village to prevent infiltration by militants. But the militants, sources say, may have de-mined the area before setting up their positions.
“The militants have been able to hold out for so long because they have entrenched themselves in dugouts and trenches,” say police sources. “They could not have done this without de-mining the area first. This shows the incursion was long in process before being executed in September.”
However, the Indian post, which faces the Pakistani post — 646 Mujahideen — on the other side of LoC, has not been fired upon in the recent past, which would have signalled a Pakistani hand in the incursion. Barring reports of some sporadic infiltration having taken place, the 2001 ceasefire agreement has largely been effective in this border area spanning Karnah, Machil and Keran.
On 21 September, the General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, Lt General Gurmit Singh, held a meeting of the commanding officers of various frontier posts at Zangli in Kupwara to take stock of the militant influx into the Kashmir Valley. The officers, sources say, discussed ways to curb the ongoing infiltration. The presence of militants in Shala Bathu was detected a couple of days later.
The army is reluctant to enter the village to take on the militants as doing so could lead to “avoidable casualties”. “I would never like to hurry up the operation. We don’t want to take any casualties. But the operation is well within our control,” Singh said at a press conference on 2 October. In the past 11 days, five soldiers have been injured in the operation.
The army has three posts on this side of the fence: Dholak, Muthal and Shala Bathu. And all of them are intact. The militants are holding out in the rugged space between the LoC and the border fence — a 2-3 km stretch left vacant by the army. What is the objective of the militants in taking over this space?
“There could be several objectives. One, infiltration into Kashmir before the onset of winter when the mountain passes will fill up with snow. Two, carrying out a Samba-style attack and inflicting casualties on the army while Manmohan Singh met Nawaz Sharif in New York. And three, an action to unnerve the Army,” said police sources. “It seems the incursion was meant to demonstrate the growing striking capability of the militants, a way of conveying that they can strike anytime, anywhere.”
Indeed, Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin had recently signalled a major change in the militants’ strategy. “We don’t operate in cities, urban areas and towns as we don’t want the civilians to suffer. We attack border posts, supply lines and cantonments,” he had told a Pakistani daily on 28 September, a day before the Manmohan Singh-Nawaz Sharif talks.