It was the first-ever gunfight in Rawalpora, a village about six kilometers from south Kashmir’s Shopian town and located down a hill. The village has many new houses, surrounded by orchards.
On Monday noon, the counter-insurgency operation was ongoing for nearly forty-eight hours and the gunfight had been fierce and intermittent. There were spells of intense firefight followed by lulls; a short distance away tear-smoke shells burst frequently to disperse the protesters.
The air was filled with a strong smell of tear smoke and explosives, dampening the fragrance of the early spring days.
The gunfight had erupted on Saturday evening and the first militant was killed on Sunday morning. The second militant Wilayat Lone, who had grown up in the village, was still on the run.
Lone had joined the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in September 2018. His nom de guerre was Sajjad Afghani, who was a fearsome militant commander of insurgency’s early years who had laid the foundation of Harkat-ul-Ansar before he got arrested along with Masood Azhar and died inside Kot Balwal prison during an attempted jailbreak.
Lone was killed sometime around Monday noon. There were no gunshots now. The soldiers were eating packets of lunch in the shade of their vehicles.
Ahmad, who didn’t give his second name and lives 200 meters from the site of the gunfight, was restless and confused. The soldiers were manning the alley outside his home and protesters were a corner away.
“It is the first ever gunfight in our village,” Ahmad said. “They [soldiers] first came to the village on Friday evening and there were few vehicles only. Then during the night, more vehicles and soldiers came and a search operation was launched,” he said.
Ahmad said the gunfight erupted on Saturday morning and it was an intense exchange. “Then there were pauses and firing would start and stop,” he said.
The ground-zero of the gunfight was inaccessible on Monday as the cordon was still intact as the searches were underway for a third militant.
At the third layer of cordon, where the government forces were having a midday meal, a soldier’s voice crackled on a walkie-talkie and made a brief situation report. “There is some movement inside the kitchen,” he said. It was followed by a quick burst of fire.
Half an hour later, the voice again emerged from the walkie-talkie. “We are sending two civilians inside to check the situation,” the soldier said.
The ghost-sighting of a third militant created confusion about the counter-insurgency operation’s longevity – it was already the fourth day since the cordon was launched and the third day since the firefight had began.
The troopers again installed the massive search lights in anticipation that the operation will continue into another night.
The protesters were shouting slogans to distract the operation in the distance and tear-smoke shells were bursting with increased frequency.
It remained unclear if the third militant was present in the village or he had escaped. The operation was called off at 6:30 pm – ending Rawalpora’s first-ever gunfight, which also marked itself as one of the lengthiest counter-insurgency operation of recent years.