SRINAGAR: As the security situation in the Valley remains precarious, restive Shopian in south Kashmir is fast turning into a war zone with nearly 40 militants and at least a dozen civilians killed in the district by government forces this year alone.

In the latest counter insurgency operation in the district's Nadigam village, four militants, all of them local youths affiliated with the proscribed Hizbul Mujahideen outfit, were gunned down by security forces in an encounter in the small hours of yesterday.

An army Para commando was also killed while two women were critically injured after forces fired on protesters in the area. The condition of one of the women is critical, according to officials at Srinagar’s SKIMS hospital, where the victim is undergoing treatment.

Officials say such skirmishes between forces, civilians and militants are a common occurrence in Shopian. The south Kashmir district currently has the highest number of active militants, making it a fertile ground for encounters which also bring civilians out on the roads.

“In the eyes of security forces, there are no civilians in Shopian. We are all either militants or overground workers of militants. This is how the state treats us and it has forced many youth to pick up arms,” Abdul Gani, a resident of Shopian’s Hermain village, said over the phone.

Shopian district emerged as the epicentre of the ‘new insurgency’ after the killing of Burhan Wani. Dozens of anti-government and pro-freedom rallies in the district during 2016 and 2017 were a boost to militant groups who found disgruntled youth willing to join them.

“There was a complete breakdown of the counterinsurgency network in the district after the killing of Hizb poster boy Burhan Wani. Slowly and steadily, we have overcome those challenges and because of a robust human intelligence network, the district is turning into a slaughter house for militants,” a senior police officer said.

Known in Kashmir for the variety of apples produced in the district, the ‘rebellious’ population and the dense orchards of Shopian used to offer safe sanctuary for militants. However, the district has now turned into a graveyard, including for some top militants like Saddam Padder, Dr Rafi Ahmed, Altaf Kachroo, Arshid Khan and others.

The depleting ranks have also incited militants to target civilians who are seen to be working as informers for security forces. Last week, militants killed two youths and later uploaded videos of their ‘confessions’ in order to create fear so that people stop passing information on the movement of militants and their sleeper cells to security agencies.

There is fear and depression in the small tract of land in Kashmir, with raids, arrests, clampdowns, shut downs part of the daily itinerary. Civilians are kidnapped by militants, civilians become the casualty in the frequent encounters between the forces and the militants, and as sources said, “it is becoming worse by the day, a vicious circle with every incident breeding more resistance even as civilians are caught between the fire.”

(Cover photo BASIT ZARGAR)