Are militant training camps across the de facto border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir located at a striking distance from India to allow the armed forces to carry out surgical strikes and dismantle them?
No, say surrendered militants who have spent months in Pakistan receiving arms and explosives training for a separatist war in Jammu and Kashmir that began in the late 1980’s. And the claim was corroborated by a top Jammu and Kashmir Police intelligence official who has been involved in counter-terrorism operations for over a decade and a half.
IANS spoke to two surrendered militants who gave a detailed account of militant camps in Pakistan, particularly at the height of the insurgency in Kashmir.
They said no training camp ever existed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, parts of which, of course, acted as base or transit camps for militants before and after their military training, which is mainly given near the border with Afghanistan.
The former militants had crossed over to Pakistan through the Line of Control (LoC) — the de facto 740-km border that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan — in the early and mid-1990’s. They were top leaders of the pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen and Al Umar Mujahideen outfits.
"The common perception about these training camps that they are located just across the LoC is absolutely wrong," said Majeed, refusing to give his second name.
The former Al Umar commander used to go by his nom de guerre Tariq Jameel. He surrendered in the late 1990s and is now running a small business in Srinagar after spending some years in prison.
Majeed said he went to Pakistan in 1993 to receive training with a group of eight men from across the valley. On reaching the densely-populated Muzaffarabad in Pakistan, some 70 km from the border town of Uri in India, Majeed’s group was lodged at a rented accommodation in the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
"We were also under the impression that Muzaffarabad will be full of these tent houses where militants would be seen receiving arms training and occasionally offering namaz in a group. But that happens only in movies," he said.
During a week in the rented Muzaffarabad house they would occasionally be visited by senior militant commanders to brief them mainly about jihad and some military theories. "But informally," he said.
They were then sent to an area on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border — an 8-to-10-hour drive from Muzaffarabad.
"We were trained in the use of AK-47 rifles, grenades, explosives and shoulder-fired rockets at these camps located near the Afghan border. The training lasted for about a month. Military instructors would be either Pakistan Army officers or Afghan mujahideen commanders," said Shafeeq, another Pakistan-trained militant who too did not want to give his second name.
Shafeeq was a Srinagar commander with the Hizbul Mujahideen and now owns a shoe store in an old city area in Srinagar.
He had received a bullet injury on his left hand in a border shootout when he made an attempt to return from Pakistan but was spotted by the Indian Army on the LoC in Kupwara. The injury led to the amputation of one of his fingers.
He remained an active militant for about five years before he was arrested and then released on court orders.
The former militants said after arms training in Pakistan, they would return to Muzaffarabad and stay at the rented accommodation paid by the outfit they belonged to. They would be then sent in small groups of four to five each and given arms and ammunition near the LoC before crossing over to India.
The account of the former militants was confirmed by the police intelligence officer.
"There is no terror camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It doesn’t happen that way. Muzaffarabad or other parts of (Pakistani) Kashmir act as base camps or launching pads. They act only as transit sites," the officer said.
He said militants who cross over from this side of Kashmir would be lodged in madrassa hostels, hospital inns or mosque rooms on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad where "brainwashing sermons on jihad" were given to them. They would later be sent near the Afghan border for arms training.
"All the talk about surgical strikes and special operations in the areas across the border is trash. You cannot, because there is no terror camp located near the LoC."
The intelligence officer said even the camps near the Afghan border are not permanently situated. "They keep moving them and operate on makeshift arrangements."