Fierce gunbattle in Poonch continues for fifth day

January 5th, 2009 - 11:16 am ICT by IANS  

Jammu, Jan 5 (IANS) A fierce gunbattle between security forces and militants continued to rage for the fifth day Monday in the thick forests of Jammu and Kashmir’s frontier Poonch district in which seven people - four militants and three soldiers - have been killed already.The shootout between security forces and militants in the forests in Mendhar area of Poonch erupted Thursday. The army laid siege to the Pati Tar mountainous forest near Mendhar following a tip-off about the presence of a group of hardcore militants in hideouts there.

Some top commanders of Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terror outfits are reported to be present in the hideouts.

According to officials, seven people - four militants and three security personnel - were killed in the first two days of the gunbattle. A Special Police Officer (SPO), Naresh Kumar, was killed Saturday morning. SPOs are temporary recruits in the police force to assist anti-militancy operations.

Col. D.K. Kachari, spokesman of army Northern Command at Udhampur, said that the bodies of the militants had not yet been recovered, but added: “Soldiers on the ground have sighted the bodies.”

But residents of Mendhar contest his claim. Mohammad Iqbal told IANS over telephone: “No militant has been killed. It is such a deep and dense forest that no one can see far.”

Army and police officials have not ruled out reports that the militants have erected bunkers or hideouts in the area.

“We feel that this could be the transit and arms dumping ground of militants,” said Iqbal.

Security officials, however, declined to comment on the matter. An official said: “Our priority is to conduct the operation and flush out militants.”

A security expert said on condition of anonymity: “If there are concrete bunkers and arms dumps here, then without hesitation it is an intelligence failure.”

The expert added that security forces had claimed to have totally “sanitised” the area ahead of the recently concluded assembly elections in the state.

The forested area in Mendhar is on the map of traditional infiltration routes of militants sneaking into the Indian side from Pakistan across the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the two countries.

Senior army and police officers are camping in the area to monitor the situation.

An official had said late Saturday: “We do not have any idea about the number of militants present there as they are firing from different positions, which means that either they are changing their locations or have split themselves in groups.”

He said the militants were equipped with heavy weaponry and have a large quantity of arms and ammunition with them. “They are frequently firing from Pica Guns.”

“We also cannot say as to how long this operation will last,” he added.

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