Shopian, May 4: Three houses were set ablaze in Turkiwangam village of Shopian district by army and police on Wednesday night even though a gunfight between the forces and militants, which could have been a justification for the fire, was fleeting and the militants managed to escape, local residents said.
The gutted houses belong to the in-laws of top Hizb-ul-Mujahideen commander Zeenat-ul-Islam Shah, one of their close relative and a police sub-inspector.
The house owners and locals termed arson as an “act of vengeance”.
“There was no encounter at all and the militants were not hiding in any of the houses which were targeted by the forces,” said Muhamad Ismail, a local resident.
Local residents who were helping the families clear debris seconded Ismail.
“We are not aware of any exchange of fire between at all. What we know is that army arrived at around 4:30 pm and fired indiscriminately at the houses,” Ismail said.
A source, however, revealed that about five militants, including Zeenat, managed to give forces a slip after a brief exchange of fire in open.
About an hour later, people marched towards the village to save the militants they believed were trapped.
The forces fired bullets and pellets into them, killing a teenaged boy and injuring 30 others.
The families that lost their shelter are in a state of shock.
“They showered bullets on our houses when our women and children were inside,” said Muhamad Yousuf Lone, one of the house owners.
Lone, an employee with fire and emergency service posted at Srinagar, is father-in-law of Zeenat-ul-Islam.
Barely two years after his marriage in 2013, Zeenat joined Hizb. He is father of a baby girl.
“I was on duty. My three sons were also not home. Only my wife and younger daughter (Zeenat’s wife) were home,” said Lone.
He said that his younger brother Abdul Rashid Lone, a carpenter by profession, whose lives next door, was also not home.
“Rashid’s wife and two little children managed to come to ours amid firing,” Lone said.
He said his and his brother’s family members took cover in a corner of the kitchen.
“The forces had fired at our house for a long time,” said Lone, showing me bullet marks on the half-burnt damaged walls, doors and windows of his and brother’s houses.
“Late in the night I got a call from a police officer inquiring whether my family had come out. I told him they were inside. Soon, a contingent of forces went inside and asked them to come out. At around 12 in the night they set on fire both mine and my brother’s house,” Lone said.
They also set on fire our cowsheds.
“I called my colleagues in Zainapora fire service and though they reached the spot immediately but were not allowed to douse the flames for quite some time,” Lone said.
Sartaj Ahmad, 16-year-old nephew of Lone, said the forces beat him up and dragged him out of the house.
“They also took away our valuables and cash,” he said.
While Lone’s huge house has suffered substantial damage, his younger brother’s house has been reduced to rubble.
“All their belongings and books of children were reduced to ashes,” said Ishaq, a neighbor of younger Lone.
The house of Bashir Ahmad Lone, a sub-inspector of police currently posted at police lines Reeshipora in Shopian, was also set ablaze. Bashir, who is a cousin of Lones, said some valuables were also stolen from his home.
“Bashir’s two sons have passed MCA and Msc mathematics. His younger one is preparing for MBBS. They had a library in the old house where they used to study. The library is gone,” said a relative of Lones.
He said the family members of Lones were also ruthlessly beaten up and they have suffered injuries too
“Even the house owner who himself is a police official was not spared and was thrashed. The forces stole ornaments, Rs 20,000 cash, two cell phones and a table lamp from the new house of theirs,” the relative of Lones said.
Senior superintendent of police Shailendra Mishra, however, denied that the forces set ablaze any of the houses.
“A cowshed caught fire during exchange of fire and later it engulfed one more house. We soon pressed into service fire tenders to douse the flames,” said Mishra.
Acknowledging that there was no encounter initially, the SSP said, “An area domination party of the army came under attack from militants. The fire was retaliated after which they (militants) took shelter in nearby houses. They then started firing from inside these houses. More re-enforcement was rushed in, however, militants managed to escape under the cover of darkness.”
SSP said the allegations of loot are baseless.
“If there is any such thing the families should have come up with a complaint to the police,” he said.
Army’s Srinagar based spokesperson termed the allegations of families and locals as baseless.