Deadly encounters: the night the Indian army arrived in a village in south Kashmir

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, displays a photo of his brother Hilal with Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani national, both members of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who were killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Fayaz Bukhari and Alasdair Pal

PINGLAN, India/SRINAGAR (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indian soldiers descended on the picturesque village of Pinglan, which is surrounded by south Kashmir’s apple and apricot orchards, just before midnight on February 17.

By the time they left 18 hours later, one civilian, three armed militants, and five members of the security forces were dead, a row of houses was reduced to rubble, an unexploded missile had been planted in a rice paddy, and more than 120 villagers had sought treatment for exposure to tear gas, alleged beatings, and in some cases mental trauma.

Reuters spent two days in Pinglan, which has a population of about 6,400, about a month after the crackdown to piece together what happened during those hours.

Interviews with more than 60 eyewitnesses indicate that soldiers forced at least four villagers to act as human shields. That meant sending them first into a building where armed militants might be hiding, often using a phone to take video could be viewed by nearby soldiers.

Human rights lawyers say such tactics – which are meant to deter militants from firing on soldiers carrying out the raids – are highly questionable and could even be a war crime under international law.

But they would not be illegal under Indian law.

“(The) Indian army has never used civilians as human-shields,” said military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mohit Vaishnava, in response to requests for comment.

However, he said that during encounters, local people are sometimes asked to mediate between the army and militants.

The armed insurgency in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir is one of the world’s longest-running. Nearly 50,000 have died as a result of the conflict in the last three decades, according to official figures.

The number of active militants had dwindled to a few dozen a few years ago. But after a 2016 uprising following the killing of a militant leader, growing numbers of young men, predominantly Kashmiris, are joining their ranks. India blames its arch-rival Pakistan for funding these groups, a claim Islamabad denies.

PARADISE LOST

Both countries claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part, and have fought three wars – two over the territory. Now nuclear powers, they came close to another war when a suicide car bomber, a local Kashmiri, killed 40 Indian paramilitary police on February 14 on a highway near Pinglan. The Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility.

That attack sparked a huge crackdown by Indian forces as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave troops a “free hand” to respond.

Since the suicide attack, hundreds of separatists have been arrested, and dozens of militants and civilians killed in what the authorities term “encounters”.

On February 17, from about 11:30 p.m., three days after the suicide attack, security forces cordoned off all the roads leading into Pinglan and began going house-to-house.

An army informant in the village had heard of the presence of militants, according to an army officer Reuters interviewed who is familiar with some operational details of the encounter.

Fifteen-year-old Muninah Amin said the army knocked on her door, telling her family their house was to be searched.

When Amin protested, she said an army major told her to be quiet.

“You should become a sarpanch (village head), you talk so much,” he said, pointing his gun at her.

Troops from the 55th Battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles demanded her father, Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, come out to help them, Amin said. They were surrounding a separate small building on the family’s property and needed Bhat to search it for them.

Gunfire from an unknown source strafed their house, breaking upstairs windows, and the remaining family members hid on the ground floor. By the time they were moved by the army into the house of a neighbor, Bhat was dead, a soldier informed them.

“They only told us he died in the crossfire,” said Amin, whose account of the evening was corroborated by her mother, Nusrat.

HOSTILE TO INDIA

The army is yet to provide any further information on how he died, Amin said.

“We asked for information but they did not give it to us,” she said. “They hid what happened.”

Vaishnava said the army did all it could to minimize civilian casualties, but the militants often hid in populated areas in order to increase the civilian death toll.

Residents interviewed in Pinglan were almost all openly hostile to India and its soldiers.

Still, many people said the village had not seen armed confrontation between militants and troops for decades. 

Amin’s account of Bhat being taken by the army to search a building was consistent with testimony of three other people, all of whom told Reuters they were forced to perform similar tasks.

A teenager, who said he was 17 and gave his name as Jibran, said he was one of a dozen mainly young men, who were taken from their homes to an armored personnel carrier where they were held and then sent out to search houses. His account was corroborated by his grandfather and aunt.

“They gave me a shield and they said you have to move forward to search the houses,” he said. “I felt in danger.”

Bhat’s brother, Shafqat Ahmad Bhat, said he was also held by the army and sent to search a house and film it on a mobile phone near the end of the encounter.

Shafqat, along with half a dozen other villagers, said they were beaten by troops using rifle butts, sticks and other weapons.

“They put a stone in my mouth to keep me quiet because I was screaming so much,” Shafqat said.

While many of the injuries sustained by those who said they had been attacked were minor, Bhat family neighbor Shahzada Akhtar said she was repeatedly struck on the face with a shoe by a soldier and needed “medical treatment.”

Her account was corroborated by Rayees Ul-Hamid, a medical officer at Pinglan’s health center.

Vaishnava said the allegations of disproportionate use of force by the army were “baseless, bereft of evidence and likely to have been made by terrorised people under duress from the perpetrators.”

THE MILITANT

Of the three militants killed in the encounter, two were Pakistani. The other, Hilal Ahmad Naikoo, was a local. He ran a successful medical laboratory and was well-liked in the village, according to interviews with his family and others.

His brother, Bilal, said Hilal joined JeM after the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu, Kashmir state in January 2018. Six people, including two policemen, are standing trial for the rape and murder while two other policemen have been accused of destroying evidence.

In October, Hilal returned for a visit home carrying a gun and accompanied by Rashid Bhai, a Pakistani believed by security forces to be one of Jaish’s top commanders, said Bilal. Bhai was also killed in the Pinglan encounter, security forces said.

Bilal was in the village that night, and heard the sound of gunfire from his house. But the first he knew of Hilal’s involvement was when his death was announced on TV.

Hilal and Bhat were buried next to each other in an ancient village graveyard that is now reserved for those killed by Indian troops. The JeM flag is draped over the railings.

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

Bilal Ahmad Naikoo, a civilian, stands by the grave of his brother Hilal, a separatist militant, and Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat, a civilian, who were both killed in a gun battle with Indian army in Pinglan village in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

The wider hostility of the villagers to Indian forces was on display the morning after their arrival in Pinglan. Dozens of people threw stones at security services, eyewitnesses said. 

Troops responded with a volley of tear gas and stun grenades.

“The air was thick with smoke, it was like a fog,” said Abdul Rahman, sifting through discarded gas shells that litter the side of the road near his house.

At 3 pm, soldiers moved a group of local journalists who had managed to enter the encounter site to the edge of the village.

Shortly after, several eyewitnesses said they saw plumes of smoke coming from the courtyard where most of the fighting had taken place.

“The Indian forces destroyed our house without any reason,” Mushtaq Ahmed, a shopkeeper, told Reuters, standing among heaps of rubble and charred timber where his house used to stand.

“No house was deliberately set on fire by security forces,” said Vaishnava, the military spokesman, blaming it on the militants.

THE AFTERMATH

The encounter was over and the soldiers were starting to move out of the village, but at about 6 p.m. troops had one last job for Shafqat Ahmad Bhat.

“They asked me to pick up an unexploded shell, dig a hole in the ground and bury it there,” he said.

He led Reuters to a nearby rice paddy and pointed to a waterlogged crater where he said he buried the unexploded mortar used in the army operation.

After visiting the site on March 21, a Reuters journalist told the authorities about the mortar. A day later, bomb disposal experts from the army and police got rid of the rocket in a controlled explosion, a local official and witnesses said.

“There was a huge explosion. The earth shook,” said Bilal Ahmed, an eyewitness.

Vaishnava denied the soldiers had forced a civilian to bury unexploded ordnance.

A fragile peace has returned to the village. The first apricot blossom of the season is beginning to bloom, while mynah birds chirp overhead.

But the trauma from the encounter has lingered.

Wuli Mohammed Naik, the grandfather of Jibran, the boy made to search houses, was one of many who said he was afraid to go out after dark.

“A man who is bitten by a snake is afraid of rope,” he said.

(Reporting by Fayaz Bukhari in Pinglan and Alasdair Pal in Srinagar; Editing by Martin Howell and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

European Jews feel under threat, think of emigrating: EU survey

The Star of David is seen on the facade of a synagogue in Paris France, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – More than one in three European Jews have considered emigrating over the past five years because they no longer feel safe amid a surge in anti-Semitism, a European Union study showed on Monday.

The survey in 12 countries that are home to 96 percent of European Jews showed widespread malaise at a rise in hate crimes which Jewish communities blame in part on anti-Semitic comments by politicians that stoke a climate of impunity.

Feelings of insecurity were particularly acute among Jews in France, followed by Poland, Belgium and Germany, the study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found.

Facing hostility online and at work or in graffiti scrawled on walls near synagogues, nine out of ten Jews living in nations which have been their home for centuries feel that anti-Semitism has worsened over the past five years, the study said.

“It is impossible to put a number on how corrosive such everyday realities can be, but a shocking statistic sends a clear message … more than one third say that they consider emigrating because they no longer feel safe as Jews,” FRA’S director Michael O’Flaherty was cited as saying in a foreword to the study.

EU officials presenting the report in Brussels on Monday called on governments to do more to combat such hate, including commemorating the history of the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed at least six million Jews in Europe during World War Two.

“What we need now is concrete action in the member states to see real change for Jews on the ground,” European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans told reporters. “There is no Europe if Jews don’t feel safe in Europe.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn are among the most prominent EU leaders battling accusations of anti-Semitism by Jewish community leaders.

Worries over the hostile rhetoric are underscored by government figures in several European countries showing a spike in violence against Jews.

Following a number of high-profile attacks targeting Jews, soldiers and armed guards at the doors of synagogues or Jewish schools have become a familiar site in Europe.

Eighty-five percent of the 16,395 polled identified anti-Semitism as the biggest social and political problem, while almost a third said they avoid attending events or visiting Jewish sites.

However, 79 percent of those who experienced harassment said they did not report the incidents to authorities.

The results showed a loss of faith in their governments’ ability to keep them safe, the European Jewish Congress (EJC) said, causing Jews to feel torn between emigrating and cutting themselves off from their Jewish community.

“This is intolerable and a choice no people should have to face,” EJC head Moshe Kantor said in a statement.

A government spokeswoman in Germany said the results of the study were shocking, adding that the interior ministry “isn’t looking at it idly.”

 

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels and Riham Alkousaa in Berlin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

‘Get out’: some Mexico border residents reject migrant arrivals

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, sit in a bus while the bus stop for them to get food and water from a store on a highway in Culiacan, Mexico November 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – Exhausted after a harrowing journey, members of Central American migrant caravans now face a new threat: open hostility from some Mexicans on the U.S. border.

A small group of residents of an upscale neighborhood in the Mexican border of Tijuana confronted caravan migrants late on Wednesday, throwing stones and telling them to go back to their home countries.

“Get out of here,” a group of around 20 people shouted at a camp of Hondurans near the border. “We want you to return to your country. You are not welcome.”

Migrants shouted back, in a confrontation that belied Tijuana’s reputation as a free-wheeling, tolerant city and lasted into the early hours of Thursday. Dozens of police arrived at the scene.

A caravan of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants who are fleeing violence and poverty at home set off for the United States in mid-October, with the bulk of them still to arrive at the border. Other large bands of mostly Salvadorans have followed behind.

Trump has declared the caravans an “invasion,” and has sent some 5,800 troops to “harden” the border, including with barbed wire.

With some exceptions, Mexico has welcomed the Central Americans, offering food and lodging in towns during their journey. The migrants said they were stunned by the hostile attitude in Tijuana.

“We are not criminals. Why do treat us like this if everywhere we have traveled in Mexico they treated us well?” migrants shouted back. “Think about the children who are here, please.”

Tensions began brewing several days ago when residents complained about a group of 80 or so LGBT migrants who broke away from the caravan and arrived in an upscale part of the Playas de Tijuana neighborhood, near where the stones were thrown.

A popular party town for U.S. tourists, Tijuana has a history of absorbing visitors, including Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. It has a large American population and some 3,000 Haitians settled in the city, just south of San Diego, in 2016 after failing to cross the U.S. border.

But the arrival of hundreds of members of the caravans has stretched to the limit migrant shelters that were already overflowing with people. While Tijuana’s traditional generosity was also on display, with the government setting up a new shelter and citizens offering food and clothing, a harder attitude also emerged.

Reuters gained access to a WhatsApp chat group called “Citizen Blockade” where some 250 members using strong language discussed strategies to harass the migrants or block their arrival.

Tijuana’s city government opened a shelter for 360 people of an estimated 810 that arrived this week, and officials warned there was little room to house more than 2,000 more who are expected to arrive this week.

Irineo Mujica, representative of the organization Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which is advising the migrants in the caravan, said the migrants wanted to seek asylum in the United States.

Their arrival adds to already long lines of people who have been waiting their turn at the Tijuana crossing. Last week, Trump suspended the granting of asylum to migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

“We are looking for solutions, not confrontations,” Mujica said following the clash with Mexicans as a helicopter hovered above, surveying the scene from the American side.

(Writing by Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Alistair Bell)

Anti-Semitic acts surge in France, government promises action

FILE PHOTO: People attend a gathering in memory of Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor stabbed to death and burnt in her Paris apartment in an apparent anti-Semitic attack, in Marseille, France March 28, 2018. The banner reads "No to hate". REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – Violence against Jews and other acts of anti-Semitism have surged in France in the past nine months, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Friday, promising stepped-up action against perpetrators.

Citing new government statistics, Philippe said acts of anti-Semitism had risen 69 percent in the year to September, compared with the same period in 2017, an increase he said should worry everyone in France. In the two previous years there had been a downward trend in the figures.

“Not remaining indifferent means taking better care of victims, acknowledging their complaints and more efficiently punishing those who carry out attacks,” Philippe said in a post on his Facebook account.

Jewish community organizations have reported particular hostility in low-income French suburbs with large Muslim populations. France has both Europe’s largest Jewish community of 400,000 people and biggest Muslim population of 5.7 million.

In recent years there have been a number of high-profile attacks targeting the Jewish community, most notably the killing of four Jews in a kosher supermarket in January 2015.

That attack, carried out by an Islamic State-inspired militant, prompted an increase in Jewish emigration to Israel.

In March, an 85-year-old Jewish woman was stabbed to death and set alight in her apartment in Paris by two attackers, who were charged with murder motivated by anti-Semitism.

There have also been a number of Jewish tombs desecrated, anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on walls near synagogues, or on the doors of homes and businesses owned by Jews.

“We have seen a very strong increase in anti-Semitic messages on the internet,” said Francis Kalifat, president of Crif, an umbrella organization representing French Jews.

“We have also seen a development of hatred towards Israel that translates into a virulent anti-Zionism, which has, like the president said, become a reinvented form of anti-Semitism.”

Philippe said the government would appoint special magistrates and prosecutors to tackle the problem and launch awareness programs in public schools.

The government will also act to curb hate on social networks, said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

“The feeling of insecurity is real and justified,” Mario Stasi, chairman of France’s league against racism and anti-Semitism, told BFMTV. “Some Jews are leaving areas within France to seek haven elsewhere.”

Also on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country had a moral duty to fight a resurgence of anti-Semitism there. She was speaking at a synagogue in Berlin to mark the 80th anniversary of the “Kristallnacht” pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany.

(Reporting by Inti Landauro; Editing by Luke Baker/Mark Heinrich)