In a setback, two senior army officers, including a colonel-rank officer, were among five security personnel killed during an encounter with terrorists at a village in Rajwar forests of North Kashmir, officials said Sunday.
The deceased security personnel are: Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh and Lance Naik Dinesh, all from the Brigade of GUARDS regiment, and at present part of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles, deployed to counter terrorism in the hinterland.
A Jammu and Kashmir Police sub-inspector, Shakeel Qazi, also fell victim of to the bullets of terrorists.
The two holed-up terrorists, who were eliminated in the encounter, included commander of banned Lashker-e-Taiba Haider, a Pakistani national who has been active in North Kashmir area. The identity of the other was yet to be ascertained.
They had held some civilians hostage, the officials said.
Director General of JK police Dilbagh Singh said, "Sad to inform that five brave personnel including Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood and sub-inspector of JKP Shakeel Qazi were martyred in the line of duty."
Security forces had noticed presence of some terrorists in the Rajwar forests in Handwara area for the past few days and a brief exchange of fire had taken place on Thursday deep inside the jungles.
Around Saturday afternoon, intelligence inputs indicated presence of the same group of terrorists inside a house at Changimulla village, prompting Col Sharma to launch a cordon and search operation along with his team and Qazi.
After a considerable lull, Col Sharma and four others personnel barged into a cowshed adjacent to the house, presuming that the terrorists had been eliminated in the heavy gunfire.
According to the officials, the team came under heavy fire after rescuing the civilians and all communication link with Col Sharma and his team were snapped. Calls made on the mobile numbers of the team were answered by terrorists.
The army then rushed in para-troopers, who after ascertaining that the Army officer and his team were killed in the encounter, launched an offensive by the first light of the day and killed the two terrorists.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the nation in paying tributes to the soldiers.
"Tributes to our courageous soldiers and security personnel martyred in Handwara. Their valour and sacrifice will never be forgotten. They served the nation with utmost dedication and worked tirelessly to protect our citizens. Condolences to their families and friends," the Prime Minister said in a tweet.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described it as "deeply disturbing and painful".
Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said the anti-terror operation highlighted the determination of the security forces to safeguard the lives of the people of Kashmir.
The army, in a tweet, said Chief of Army Staff General M M Naravane and all ranks of the force paid tributes to the "valiant braves of our Army and JK Police for their supreme sacrifice while fighting and eliminating terrorists in Handwara."
The death of Col Sharma and Major Sood, both from 21-RR, was a sad reminder of a near similar incident two decades back when Commanding Officer of the same batallion Colonel Rajinder Chauhan was killed by terrorists along with Brig B S Shergil in 2000.
The death of a Colonel-rank officer was seen in the valley after five years. In 2015, the Army had lost two colonels in a year in Kashmir.
Colonel M N Rai of 2/9 Gorkha Rifles, was the CO of 42 RR and laid his life for the country while fighting militants in Tral in South Kashmir in January 2015.
The same year, Col Santosh Mahadik was killed in an encounter in Kupwara area.
On the latest operation, the Army said based on the intelligence input that terrorists were taking hostage some civilians in a house, a joint operation was launched by the army and the JK Police.
A team comprising five Army and police personnel entered the target area occupied by the terrorists to evacuate the civilians and successfully extricated them.
However, during the process, the team came under a heavy volume of fire by the terrorists and in the ensuing firefight the five personnel were killed, the Army said.
The terrorists are believed to have come to Handwara to receive an infiltrating group from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, officials said.
A wreath-laying ceremony would be held tomorrow after which Col Sharma's body would be flown to Jaipur and that of Major Sood to Pune, the officials said.