July 2003 News

ISI Lying Low As Militants Fidget, Waiting For Signal

20 July 2003
The Indian Express
M Ilyas Khan

New Delhi: Once thought by local people to be the abode of a fairy named Shamsa, the 12,000-foot high Shamsbari mountain towers calmly over the often restive Lipa valley. There are no border incursions by militants and no retaliatory Indian fire to drive residents out of their homes and into the underground bunkers. But people are keeping their fingers crossed as militants in small groups start trickling into the valley in time for snows to melt on high mountain passes. To the north of Shamsbari, the glaciated ridges of Bimla mountain are not so quiet. Indian guns have been spitting fire into the Neelum valley below throughout the winter months, cutting off traffic on large sections of a 200-km road between Muzaffarabad and Keil. Together, Shamsbari and Bimla separate Lipa and Neelum valleys from Kupwara and Baramulla. Throughout last winter, these valleys were awash with militants, attracting heavy shelling on the road and the villages around. But since May 8, when President Musharraf extended the promise of curbing militancy to the visiting US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, the militants have suddenly disappeared from public view. The last time Musharraf made a similar promise a year ago, militants held back for only two months (May and June) before resuming infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC). Is it going to be the same this season? In a two-room hut made of cedar wood in Naukot village of Lipa, the quiet existence of three Harkatul Mujahideen (HUM) militants may provide one of the many possible answers. 'The agency (the local name for ISI) has asked us not to keep more than three persons at the camp,' says one of them, Naimgul of Okara. 'It makes it more difficult for the American satellites to tell a camp from a village home,' he adds naively. Naimgul is sitting by a spring water stream crossing the hut's sizeable courtyard, chopping okras for lunch. The okras fill up a huge cooking pot, enough for 20 persons or more. Naimgul explains: 'Some of the boys are putting up with friends in the village, others spend their time exploring the (abundant cedar) forest in the area. Some boys are stationed at (HUM's depot) in the Mandakuli area. We get funds to provide langar (meals) to all of them. Even the agency guys drop by to eat here.' It sounds odd that the infamous linkage between the militants and the Pakistani military establishment - vehemently denied by both sides in public - is mentioned so openly in this part of the world. But the paradigm shift which was brought about by 9-11 has little meaning for the likes of Naimgul. As far as he is concerned, the struggle which started in 1989 remains as valid as ever. With a few tactical changes, though. Like HUM, most of the two dozen or more militant groups continue to maintain minimum presence in numerous camps spread out in Naukot as well as other larger villages of the valley such as Channian, Lipa, Chamola etc. In one case, however, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) is keeping a comparatively larger group of close to 30 activists at its Khairatibagh camp in Lipa valley. The larger among the militant groups run their separate launching depots, each manned by between five to ten militants at present. These depots, which are located in Mandakuli village at the eastern end of the valley, have been housing provisions to be issued to guides, porters and fighters when a team is launched for infiltration. Currently, no such activity is in evidence. Between Mandakuli and Channian, sitting on high ground overlooking the valley's main rivulet is the wood and stone structure of the ISI's main depot in the area. This depot issues arms, ammunition and trekking kits to porters, guides and fighters launched from Lipa valley. This season the place wears a deserted look. Like the militants, the agencywallahs too seem to have melted into the local population. Enquiries made in Athmuqam, a subdivisional headquarter in Neelum valley, reveal a similar pattern, with militants mostly hiding in abandoned government buildings and mosques instead of crowding into camps and bazaars as was the norm until last winter. They do keep a minimum presence in the scores of riverside camps, though, while some of them are even housed in defence-related establishments in towns as well as up in the hills.


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