Militants kill Amarnath pilgrims
1 August 2000
Srinagar: At least 21 people, including Hindu yatris to the Amarnath cave-shrine and their local Muslim hosts, were killed and 33 others wounded in an exchange of fire between militants and security forces on Tuesday evening at Pahalgam, the base camp of the annual pilgrimage deep into the Kashmir Himalayas. Though conflicting reports about the bloody incident are pouring in from Pahalgam, 96 km east of Srinagar, official sources here said that at about 7 pm, two to three militants emerged from the woods near the Plaza and Heaven hotels along the river Lidder and targeted a security forces camp nearby with rifle fire and grenades. The security forces returned fire, killing two militants. A large number of people, both visiting pilgrims and locals, were caught in the crossfire. As many as 19 bodies were brought to the local police station within an hour of the bloody incident. Many more were injured and those in critical condition were quickly taken to the district hospitals at Anantnag and Srinagar. Two of them died on the way to the hospitals, a report said. Another report put the death toll at 23, adding that it may rise as the condition of some of the injured is serious. An emergency alert was sounded at Srinagar''s Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences and Sri Maharaj Hari Singh Hospital. However, independent reports from Pahalgam said the security forces panicked on being attacked by the militants. They opened indiscriminate fire in retaliation, resulting in heavy casualties among civilians. Inspector-general of police Ashok Bhan confirmed that some of the critically injured were being brought here for specialised treatment. The officer said that the militants came down a hillock and targeted a CRPF langar on the banks of the river Lidder. They kept moving ahead, firing indiscriminately. The CRPF returned fire, killing the duo. He said two assault rifles with six magazines and seven to eight grenades were found on the slain militants. ''But, before they could be killed, they had done a lot of damage,'' he said, admitting that ''some people might have been caught in the crossfire.'' Asked to identify the dead civilians, the officer said, ''It may not be possible to do so at this stage.'' He, however, said that among the injured, 13 were locals and 20 visitors. Also killed in the incident was a tourist police official, Suraj Singh, he added. Yet another report, corroborated by tourism officials, said the security forces were apparently taken by surprise. They opened indiscriminate fire in retaliation, resulting in heavy casualties among the pilgrims and locals, including makeshift traders, vendors, ponywallas and labourers. ''Most of the bodies I have seen are those of locals,'' said a tourism official on the phone from Pahalgam. Earlier, a police official here had given a different version of the incident. He said that a group of militants in a Maruti 800 attacked the security forces deployed near a railway holiday home along the Lidder river at 6.50 pm. The security forces retaliated ''effectively but in a restrained manner.'' Three militants were killed. However, since a fairly large number of pilgrims and locals was present at that rush hour, many were caught in the crossfire. Also killed was a head-constable of the tourist police force, the officer said. Dr Bhan said the deputy inspector-general of police and the senior superintendent of police of Anantnag, a deputy inspector-general of the BSF and an Army brigadier were already camping at Pahalgam in connection with the annual pilgrimage. The movement of yatris from Chandanwari, Baltal and other stages of the pilgrimage was suspended on Tuesday morning following heavy rains and hostile weather. However, another batch comprising 2,928 pilgrims arrived at Pahalgam in 115 light and heavy vehicles from Jammu. The authorities had decided not to allow any pilgrims to proceed from Jammu on Wednesday so that those stranded at various places along the hill track, including Pahalgam, Chandanwari and Baltal, could be cleared first. Earlier during the day, it was the swiftness of a policeman in gunning down a terrorist before he could strike against innocent Amarnath pilgrims that averted bloodshed inside a makeshift registration office in Jammu. Constable Krishan Lal''s colleague, assistant sub-inspector Banti, also deserves to be praised for his high alertness and sense of duty. According to the police, Banti, who was on guard duty, saw a masked gunman entering the government-run Hari Singh Higher Secondary School, located on a back street along the city''s otherwise busy Residency Road, at about 10.40 am. The building is at present being used as a makeshift office to register pilgrims to Amarnath. The policeman quickly alerted the visitors and officials by shouting, ''Laitou, hamla hone wala hai (Duck, an attack is being carried out).'' Everybody in the building obeyed him. The intruder opened fire with his automatic assault rifle at Krishan Lal, who was guarding the main entrance to the building but missed. The intruder was killed by retaliatory fire. Two other gunmen, reportedly seen moving close to the building along with him, on seeing him shot withdrew from the scene. Officials said they were believed to have hidden either in the nearby Christian Colony or Gujjar Nagar. The police, paramilitary reinforcements and Army troops were immediately sent to the area to lay siege and start searches. An Army helicopter was also flying over the area so that the gunmen did not move out, the police and witnesses said. Another dropped paratroopers into the area. Jammu deputy inspector-general of police R.L. Vaid said he believed the gunmen formed a fidayeen group ''who wanted to kill innocent pilgrims.'' The slain terrorist could not be identified immediately, he said. Panic gripped Jammu. Traders in many areas stopped work and vehicles were withdrawn from the roads on learning about the incident. Meanwhile, the service rifle of a policeman on guard duty outside the Residency Road police station accidentally went off, adding to the chaos. However, normalcy was restored after a while.