New Delhi: Security forces in the Kashmir Valley are facing a serious challenge in their anti-terror operations with a new trend, which has almost become a phenomenon now, of stone-throwing protesters coming out to rescue militants from shootout sites.
Military officials and security experts admit it is a dangerous trend with Army Chief General Bipin Rawat even warning locals against supporting militants.
Earlier, Kashmir police had issued advisories, asking people not to come close to shootout sites between militants and security forces. The district administration prohibits gathering of four or more persons around the areas where gun battles are on.
Despite that people came out throwing stones at security forces during at least three gun battles in the valley.
The trend began in south Kashmir last year when dozens of people came shouting slogans and throwing stones at security forces in a village near Pampore town. The trend has now spread to other parts of the valley.
On Sunday morning, stone-pelting protesters came close to an gunfight site to help militants escape when security forces were fighting them in south Kashmir's Kulgam.
Two days later, when forces cordoned off a village in north Kashmir, a mob marched towards the militant hideout throwing stones at police and the army.
A similar incident was reported in north Kashmir's Handwara where people took to streets to help militants escape.
Army officials told IANS that these were diversionary tactics by overground workers to help the besieged militants get out, giving a nightmare to security forces in their efforts to minimize collateral damage in their nearly three-decade of unending counter-insurgency operations in the valley.
The officials, however, clarified that the army chief's warning wasn't directed generally at the people of the Kashmir but definitely against those who were supporting militant activities and trying to protect terrorists.
"We are with the citizens of the valley and the chief's statement was for the people who support terrorist. The army's role is only to create a situation for civilian government to function," a senior army official told IANS, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain told IANS that the army's "inability to engage with youth (in the valley) beyond the peripheral contacts makes it the key problem".
"The absence of grassroot political activity is the other. The last is the nuanced information operations launched by Pakistan and the separatists using social media and networks besides the local mosques," said Hasnain, who has served as the top army commander in Kashmir heading the corps that is the nerve centre of all counter-terror operations in the valley.
Brig (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal shared the view. "As a nation we have failed to integrate Jammu and Kashmir with the national mainstream even after 70 years of independence. Deep sense of alienation exists in the valley."
Speaking on the army chief's statement on engaging the overground workers who obstruct army's operations against militants, Kanwal said: "The army will only target who are interfering in the operations and firing at the army. They will use utmost restraint."