Germany ‘heading for epidemic’ as virus spreads faster outside China

By David Stanway and Josh Smith

SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) – Germany said on Wednesday that it was heading for a coronavirus epidemic and could no longer trace all cases, as the number of new infections inside China – the source of the outbreak – was for the first time overtaken by those elsewhere.

Asia reported hundreds of new cases, Brazil confirmed Latin America’s first infection and the new disease – COVID-19 – also hit Pakistan, Greece and Algeria. Global food conglomerate Nestle suspended all business travel until March 15.

Stock markets across the world lost $3.3 trillion of value in four days of trading, as measured by the MSCI all-country index, but on Wednesday Wall Street led something of a rebound.

U.S. health authorities, managing 59 cases so far, have said a global pandemic is likely, but President Donald Trump accused two cable TV channels that frequently criticise him of “doing everything possible to make (the coronavirus) look as bad as possible, including panicking markets”.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

While radical quarantining measures have helped to slow the rate of transmission in China, elsewhere it is accelerating.

Germany, which has around 20 cases, said it was already impossible to trace all chains of infection, and Health Minister Jens Spahn urged regional authorities, hospitals and employers to review their pandemic planning.

“Large numbers of people have had contact with the patients, and that is a big change to the 16 patients we had until now where the chain could be traced back to the origin in China,” he said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also spoken on Tuesday of a nascent pandemic. “It’s not a question of ‘if’. It’s a question of ‘when’ and how many people will be infected,” said its principal deputy director, Anne Schuchat.

‘PANDEMIC’ – OR NOT?

The World Health Organization (WHO) said China had reported 411 new cases on Tuesday – against the 427 logged in 37 other countries.

However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus advised diplomats in Geneva on Wednesday against speaking of a pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems,” he said.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true.”

Dr Bruce Aylward, head of a joint WHO-Chinese mission on the outbreak, told reporters on his return to Geneva:

“Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow. If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready … This a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we have got to tackle super-fast to prevent a pandemic.”

Trump tweeted that he would attend a briefing on Wednesday. But the White House denied a report by the Politico outlet that it was considering appointing a “coronavirus czar”.

The WHO says the outbreak peaked in China around Feb. 2, after measures that included isolating Hubei province.

China’s National Health Commission reported 406 new infections on Wednesday, down from 508 a day earlier and bringing the total confirmed cases in mainland China to 78,064. Its death toll rose by 52 to 2,715.

The WHO said only 10 new cases were reported in China on Tuesday outside Hubei.

FEARS FOR OLYMPICS

South Korea, which with 1,261 cases has the most outside China, reported 284 new ones including a U.S. soldier, as authorities prepared to test more than 200,000 members of a Christian church at the centre of the outbreak.

Brazil reported the first case in Latin America, a source said on Wednesday – a 61-year-old who had visited Italy.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for sports and cultural events to be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to stem the virus as concern mounted for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japan has nearly 170 cases, besides the 691 linked to a cruise ship that was quarantined off its coast this month. Six people have died there, including four from the ship.

There have been nearly 50 deaths outside China, including 12 in Italy and 19 in Iran, according to a Reuters tally.

While Iran has reported only 139 cases, epidemiologists say the death rate of around 2% seen elsewhere suggest that the true number of cases in Iran must be many times higher, and cases linked to Iran have been reported across the Middle East.

In Europe, Italy has become a front line in the global outbreak with 322 cases. Italians or people who had recently visited Italy have tested positive in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

Two hotels, one in Austria and one on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands, were locked down over cases linked to Italy.

Authorities said the more than 700 guests at Tenerife’s four-star Costa Adeje Palace could leave their rooms after a day of confinement but would have to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

“It’s very scary because everyone is out, in the pool, spreading the virus,” said 45-year-old Briton Lara Pennington, fearing for her two young sons and her elderly in-laws.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html)

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Susan Heavey in Washington, Diane Bartz in Chicago, Gavin Jones, Francesca Piscioneri and Crispian Balmer in Rome, Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing, Kate Kelland in London, Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul, Geert De Clercq in Paris, Paresi Hafezi and Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Stephanie Nebehay and Michael Shields in Geneva; Writing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Pravin Char and John Stonestreet)

Rescuers hunt for survivors as Pakistan landslide death toll rises

Rescuers hunt for survivors as Pakistan landslide death toll rises
By Abu Arqam Naqash

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – Army helicopters flew rescue missions for the third day running in an avalanche-hit area of Pakistani-Kashmir as the death toll from the disaster rose to 77 on Thursday, officials said.

The latest victim of the avalanches in Neelum Valley, in the Himalayan region disputed by Pakistan and India, was a six-year-old girl, Safia, who died in hospital on Thursday.

Safia had been pulled out alive on Tuesday after being buried for close to 20 hours, a doctor, quoting the child’s family, said. “She had suffered fractures in her skull and orbital bones and left leg and despite our best efforts died of her brain injuries,” the doctor, Adnan Mehraj, told Reuters.

Safia’s family were elated when she was found alive, her uncle, Naseer Ahmed told Reuters, but now relatives were in shock. Safia was the 19th member of the family to perish in the Neelum Valley avalanches.

“I am not in my senses … We have lost almost everyone in the family from young kids to elderly members,” said a visibly disturbed Ahmed.

“This extreme weather has played havoc with the lives of people living in high altitude mountains,” Pakistani-Kashmir’s top administrative official, Mathar Niaz Rana, said.

“We are trying our best to alleviate their sufferings,” he told Reuters as two helicopters were being loaded with relief supplies, including food and medicine, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in a separate area in Pakistan, further north, five personnel of the Pakistan army were killed when an avalanche hit them as they were carrying out rescue efforts, according to a senior official.

The five were from the engineer corps and helping clear roads covered by landslides in an area of Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous region that borders China. Avalanches in the area had earlier killed a woman and child, an official of the local disaster management authority, Farid Ahmed, said.

In total, 109 people have died across Pakistan in snow and landslide-related incidents over the last five days, including 20 deaths in the south-western province of Baluchistan.

(Writing by Gibran Peshimam, Editing by William Maclean)

Gunmen in Pakistan kill two police escorting polio vaccinators

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Gunmen shot and killed two police officers escorting a polio vaccination team on Wednesday forcing a suspension of the immunization campaign in a district of northwest Pakistan, where the crippling disease is endemic.

Previous attacks have been inspired by religious hardliners spreading false rumors, and the latest ambush of a vaccination team comes at a time when the polio cases in Pakistan have jumped from 12 to over 100 in the last one year, making it only one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic.

The gunmen opened fire at the officials when they were escorting the vaccination team in Lower Dir district, said police official Sultan Ghani. “The polio campaign has been suspended after the incident in the area,” he said.

Of the 104 total polio cases in Pakistan, 75 has been reported from the northwest Pakistan, a region plagued by Islamist militancy.

No one claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, though religious hardliners over the past year have raised a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated vaccines.

In the past, militants have called vaccination teams foreign agents, and peddled conspiracy theories that their campaigns were a Western ploy to sterilize Muslims.

Pakistan’s government has tried to counter those falsehoods with public education campaigns, recruiting Muslim religious leaders to reassure people that the vaccine only protects their children.

The involvement of a Pakistani doctor in helping U.S. intelligence agents to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden had fueled suspicion of the anti-polio campaign, though attacks on vaccination teams pre-dated the 2011 killing of the al Qaeda leader in the northwestern town of Abbottabad.

Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other countries where the polio virus, which can cause paralysis or death, remains endemic.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Lawyers ransack Pakistani hospital in row with doctors, patient dies

By Mubasher Bukhari

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – More than 100 lawyers stormed and ransacked a hospital in Pakistan on Wednesday to avenge what they said was an assault by doctors there on a fellow advocate, and an elderly patient died during the disturbance, authorities said.

Zulfikar Hameed, the Lahore city police chief, said the mob smashed windowpanes, doors and equipment at the cardiology hospital and also set several vehicles on fire.

Some of the protesters fired gunshots and pelted arriving police with stones and bricks, according to a hospital doctor, Ashraf Nizami. Several lawyers were arrested, police said.

“It was catastrophic for hours,” Nizami said, adding that a 70-year-old female patient had died, and several patients were left unattended for hours, during the violence.

Nizami said the attackers forced doctors and nurses to flee, leaving patients in emergency and intensive care unattended.

Police fired tear gas to quell the mob while terrified patients and hospital staff fled to safety, officials said.

Lahore government official Kamran Ali said the lawyers were enraged over what they said was the beating by doctors of a lawyer at the hospital over his refusal to get in a queue of patients.

He said the lawyers were particularly angry about the doctors disseminating a mobile phone video on social media showing the beating.

The mob also roughed up provincial information minister Fayaz-ul-Hasan Chauhan when he got to the scene and tried to negotiate with the lawyers.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office launched an investigation into the incident. “It is a shame that some people would go and attack a hospital,” his spokesman Nadeem Afzal Chan said.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Taliban, U.S. envoy in Pakistan to review broken peace talks

By Asif Shahzad and Charlotte Greenfield

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Afghan Taliban officials were due in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of reviving talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the insurgent group said.

The high-profile Taliban delegation was arriving as the top U.S. diplomat involved in talks with the militants, Zalmay Khalilzad, also met government officials in Islamabad.

It was not clear if the Taliban would meet Khalilzad, though one senior Pakistani government official said that might happen.

The Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the group’s founders, was due to discuss “important issues” with Pakistani officials, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said.

The visit, the latest stop on a tour of regional powers including Russia, China and Iran by Taliban officials, comes after efforts by the militants and the United States to reach a deal allowing for the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign forces broke down last month.

“The visit would provide the opportunity to review the progress made under U.S.-Taliban peace talks so far, and discuss the possibilities of resuming the paused political settlement process in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement. It said a meeting between the insurgents and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was being finalized.

Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, has been meeting Pakistani officials in Islamabad following discussions between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the United States.

“These consultations follow discussions held between the United States and Pakistan during the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week,” said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad via email.

The spokesman did not say if Khalilzad was still in Pakistan on Wednesday or if he planned to meet the Taliban officials. A top Pakistan government official told Reuters that the Taliban would likely meet Khan, and that, “we’re trying that we will convince the Taliban that the delegation also meets Zalmay Khalilzad”.

The official said the meetings would focus on attempting to convince the Taliban to include the Afghan government in the peace talks. The insurgents have previously refused to negotiate with what they call an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said on Twitter that the Afghan government should be involved in any peace process.

“No progress will be imminent if a peace process is not owned and led by the Afghan government,” he said.

PROGRESS ON PEACE?

The United States has long considered Pakistani cooperation crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

Trump last month halted the talks with the Taliban, aimed at striking a deal allowing U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, following the death of a U.S. solder and 11 others in a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul.

The Taliban delegation would inform Pakistan’s leadership of the factors that derailed the talks, said a Taliban official who declined to be identified. The Taliban also planned to follow up on Khan’s recent comment that he would try to convince Trump to resume the talks, the Taliban official said.

Baradar, the head of the delegation, was making his first known visit to Pakistan since he was released from a Pakistani jail a year ago.

Previously the coordinator of the group’s military operations in southern Afghanistan, he was arrested in 2010 by a team from Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies.

The U.S. and Taliban said last month, shortly before talks broke off, that they were close to reaching a deal, despite concerns among some U.S. security officials and within the Afghan government that a U.S. withdrawal could plunge the country into even more conflict and open the way for a resurgence of Islamist militant factions.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar, Pakistan and Abdul Qadir Sediqi and Orooj Hakimi in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Rod Nickel in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Death toll rises to 37 in Pakistan earthquake, as families bury loved ones

Death toll rises to 37 in Pakistan earthquake, as families bury loved ones
By Akhtar Soomro and Abu Arqam Naqash

MIRPUR/MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) – The death toll from an earthquake that struck Pakistani Kashmir jumped to 37, officials said on Wednesday, as families mourned relatives and rescue teams sent supplies to the area.

Officials said the extent of the casualties, who included young children, emerged a day after the 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck as authorities were able to reach towns and villages around the region outside main population centres.

“We had dispatched survey teams in the entire area affected by the earthquake to collect details of the victims,” Muhammad Tayyab, divisional commissioner for Mirpur, one of the worst affected areas, told Reuters, adding that around 500 people had been injured.

Tuesday’s earthquake levelled homes and shops and split open roads in an area between the towns of Jhelum and Mirpur to the north, part of which is in Pakistan’s portion of the disputed territory of Kashmir.

“The situation is slowly returning to normal, the level of panic is now less among the people, although an aftershock was felt at night,” said Sardar Gulfaraz Khan, a police deputy inspector general.

Most of the damage happened in villages where old houses collapsed, Khan said.

In a town in Mirpur district, more than 200 people gathered to attend the funeral of a 1-1/2-year-old child who was killed in the earthquake. Women wailed around the bed where the boy’s body lay covered in a blanket.

Another child in the town was buried the same morning after a wall collapsed on her.

“All of sudden I received a call from my father that there was an earthquake and my little sister is badly injured,” her brother Mohammad Hameed said. “She was injured and (now) she has left us.”

Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) had earlier said 25 people had been killed and that most of the casualties were in Pakistani Kashmir.

Many people from the area slept outdoors overnight and some were returning home on Wednesday to collect belongings and inspect damage.

Lieutenant General Muhammad Afzal, the NDMA’s chief, said the authority would bring in 200 family-sized tents for temporary shelters, kitchen sets, blankets and 50,000 bottles of water.

Troops and other emergency responders carried out rescue operations through the night, with engineers starting repairs on a key road that was severely damaged, the Pakistan Army’s communications arm said.

Afzal said the road would reopen by Thursday evening. Three bridges were also damaged.

The earthquake disrupted power to the region, but it had been restored by midday on Wednesday, NDMA said.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a tweet, offered condolences to families of the victims and said he had directed the government to quickly offer relief and assess damage.

Kashmir has been in dispute between India and Pakistan since the two countries were carved out of British colonial India in 1947 and have been the cause of two wars between them.

(Reporting by Abu Arqam Naqash in Muzaffarabad and Akhtar Soomro in Mirpur; Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Rod Nickel and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Editing by Tom Hogue and Alex Richardson)

Pakistani plan for media courts sparks fears for press freedom

Pakistani plan for media courts sparks fears for press freedom
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani government plans to launch specialist media courts sparked a furious backlash on Wednesday from media and rights advocates who said the move was an attack on freedom of speech.

Government spokesman Firdous Ashiq Awan said late on Tuesday that cases against the media would be heard by the special tribunals, which would be overseen by higher courts.

The All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) said the move was a “black day” for the Pakistani media and that they would fight the measures in the legislature and judiciary.

“Special courts aimed at intimidating and strangulating the media and freedom of expression are not only unconstitutional but also contrary to the spirit of democracy,” Hameed Haroon, APNS president, and Sarmad Ali, APNS secretary-general, said in an emailed statement.

Journalists and human rights advocates have feared the introduction of the courts amid complaints of growing pressure on broadcasters and newspapers to avoid covering critics of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration.

In July, opposition parties accused Khan of intimidating broadcasters into a blackout on TV coverage of his critics, after several channels were briefly taken off-air and opposition protests and news conferences passed unreported.

Khan, who took office last year, has denied censoring media and has called the accusations a “joke”.

Government spokesman Awan said in a tweet that the existing media oversight body to be replaced by the special courts had been criticized for being under state control and that the new courts would meet judicial standards and process cases faster.

“The whole process will be a true reflection of laws and high democratic values,” she said, adding that journalists could also take complaints about the government to the media courts.

But that did not quell the fears of many freedom of speech advocates, with the non-governmental watchdog Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) saying it was alarmed.

“How are tribunals expected to maintain the media’s independence?” it said in a tweet. “Given the government’s woeful record on press freedoms, HRCP urges it to refrain from pressurizing the media further.”

Pakistan’s press has had a turbulent relationship with successive governments and the powerful military for many years.

Writers and bloggers say several cases of reporters being abducted and beaten, critical columnists being denied space, advertising business cut to media houses and sackings of TV commentators have created a climate of fear and self-censorship.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad and Syed Raza Hasan in Karachi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Death toll from India, Nepal, Bangladesh floods jumps to over 300

Flood-affected people receives water purifying tablets from volunteers in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Serajul Quadir and Sudarshan Varadhan

DHAKA/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The death toll from severe flooding in parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh rose to more than 300 on Monday, even as heavy rains are starting to ebb and water levels started to recede in some of the worst-affected areas.

Heavy rains and overflowing rivers swamped vast swathes of eastern India more than a week ago, and officials on Monday said so far 102 people have died in Bihar state, 35 more than what the state government had estimated on Thursday.

Torrential rains in Bangladesh killed more than 47 people in the last two weeks and at least 120 are missing and feared dead following severe floods and landslides in mostly mountainous Nepal, authorities from the two countries said.

A flood-affected woman wades through flooded area in Jamalpur, Bangladesh July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

A flood-affected woman wades through flooded area in Jamalpur, Bangladesh July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Parts of Pakistan have also been flooded.

In Bangladesh, at least 700,000 people have been displaced.

Deaths due to flooding in the region more than doubled in the last five days.

At least five districts in central Bangladesh are at the risk of being flooded, as water levels of two rivers are still rising, an official at the Bangladesh Water Development Board told Reuters.

Authorities are struggling to deliver relief supplies to marooned people.

“We have enough relief materials but the main problem is to reach out to the people,” Foyez Ahmed, deputy commissioner of Bangladesh’s Bogra district, said. “We don’t have adequate transport facilities to move to the areas that are deep underwater.”

In India’s tea-growing state of Assam, close to the border of Bangladesh, severe flooding has displaced millions of people and killed more than 60, officials have said.

Separately, at least 32 people were killed on Sunday in lightning strikes in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state in the north.

India’s weather office on Monday forecast “extremely heavy” rain in four of the 14 districts of the southern state of Kerala.

Kerala last year faced its worst floods in about a century, with heavy rain and landslides killing nearly 500 people, destroying houses and wiping out farmlands.

Monsoon rains, which deliver 75% of India’s annual rain, have not been evenly distributed.

The Himalayan region has received substantially more rain than some of the areas in the plains, where rainfall deficiency has widened to 60%, according to the state-run India Meteorological Department.

(Writing by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Mayank Bhardwaj & Kim Coghill)

Death row Christian woman has left Pakistan, lawyer says

FILE PHOTO: Governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer is reflected as he speaks to the media after meeting with Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a jail in Sheikhupura, located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 20, 2010. REUTERS/Asad Karim/File Photo

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row falsely charged with blasphemy has left the country, her lawyer and media said on Wednesday, more than six months after she was acquitted by Pakistan’s top court.

Pakistani and Canadian officials have not officially commented on Asia Bibi’s reported departure, perhaps due to the sensitive nature of her case.

Bibi’s release in October sparked rioting by hardline Islamists, who rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict and warned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government that she must not be allowed to leave the country.

They also called for Bibi, who has been staying at an undisclosed location under tight security, to be killed.

“I have inquired within available channels, and according to them she has left for Canada,” Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, told Reuters.

Pakistani TV channels Geo and ARY, citing unidentified sources, also reported Bibi had left the country.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A Canadian government spokeswoman said in an emailed statement: “Global Affairs Canada has no comment.”

In November, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was in talks with Pakistan about helping Bibi, whose family are believed to be outside Pakistan. She is widely expected to seek asylum and diplomats say she will have no problems.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court in January upheld its earlier verdict to free Bibi, but Pakistani officials have worried that her sudden departure could trigger further riots.

Islamists have criticized the government and the military for caving in to what they call pressure from the Western world.

Bibi, a farm worker and a mother of four, was convicted in 2010 of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors working in the fields with her objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

Her case has outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help her were assassinated, including Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, shot by his own bodyguard.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “fantastic news that Asia Bibi appears to have left Pakistan safely”.

Hunt, who is due to discuss persecution of Christians with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, head of the Church of England, tweeted that Bibi’s freedom “shows that with concerted effort the right thing can happen”.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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)