Army personnel were carrying out a 'deliberate operation' to wear out the holed-up terrorists to avoid casualties in security forces, as their encounter in the dense forests in Poonch raged for the seventh day in one of the longest battles in the border state in years.
The Army said the eight to ten terrorists holed up in the Bhati Dhar jungles in Jammu region were suspected to be from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed terror outfit.
Defence Minister A K Antony, its chief General Deepak Kapoor and senior officers in Jammu underpinned a strategy to quickly end the encounter, which was marked by a heavy exchange of gunfire, but acknowledged that it was taking time due to the difficult terrain and to avoid casualties among security personnel.
"We want to flush out the militants but we want to ensure that there are no casualties," Antony said in New Delhi.
Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor told reporters, "We are carrying out the operation to ensure maximum attrition on the terrorists to ensure that we do not suffer any casualties... the area is very rocky and filled with natural caves. That is why it (the operation) is taking time."
Asked about a time-frame to flush out the terrorists from their fortified cave hideouts, General Kapoor said the army was trying to finish off the operation as soon as possible.
The holed-up terrorists, who have been exchanging fire with the security forces for the last one week, seem to be
from JeM based on the intercepts that we have got," Brigadier (General Staff) Gurdeep Singh told reporters in Mendhar in Jammu and Kashmir.
Unlike operation 'Sarp Nash' in 2003 during which security forces had come across bunkers built by terrorists, Singh said in the current operation, there were no such reports of bunkers being set up by the ultras in the forest area. The terrorists were using natural caves with rocks around them as hideouts in the region, he said.
Strongly denying reports that there were 1,500 troops deployed in the operation, the Brigadier said that there were
just about 350 men on the ground as of now battling the terrorists.
On whether more troops from specialised forces such as the National Security Guards would be joining the operation, Singh said he had enough men to do the job and the troops were doing well.
The Army also said it suspected the terrorists to be still holed up in the forests as small arms fire had been on since this morning from different spots in the operational area."There are terrorists holed up there. We know it from the gun shots yesterday and today. It would not be right to guess their number at this point," Singh said.
Maintaining that the army had busted a couple of caves, where the terrorists were hiding during the operation, he said they had recovered some ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, some ration and a radio set from the busted hideouts.
"This is not the only operation in the area.We have witnessed several other operations too and the army has eliminated terrorists before also," he said. Pointing out that terrorists have been very active in the this area, he said there were reports of some local support, but it could be due to duress. "The police have arrested a couple of workers of the terror groups recently," he said.
On the recovery of GI sheets from the terrorists, Singh said these were used to cover the openings to the caves, where they were hiding, so as to protect them from the weather.
"There were no bunkers, but only caves in which a couple of GI sheets were used to cover the opening," he said.