Protesters and stone pelters in Kashmir have helped militants escape cordon and search operations on 13 occasions after the warning by Army Chief Bipin Rawat that those ''disrupting operations against militants will be treated as overground workers of the militants''.
Rawat issued the warning on February 16—a day after four soldiers, including a major, were killed in two encounters at Hajin and Kralgund in north Kashmir. Since then, the security forces have strengthened the deployment during the cordons and search operations, but failed to deter the protesters.
Police sources say the disruption by stone pelters is a cause of worry as it not only helps the militants to escape, but also results in the injuries and deaths of protesters that feed into the anger against the government in the state.
Since Rawat's threat, 43 such operations were carried out by security forces, and on 13 occasions, the protesters swooped on the encounter sites, enabling the militants to escape.
Most of the operations have been carried out in South Kashmir's Shopian, Pulwama, Kulgam, Awantipora, and Budgam.
According to police sources, to prevent civilian fatalities, the operations against militants were called off even before the start at six different places.
An assessment carried out by the police found that three militants managed to escape after forces laid siege in Kulgam near a health centre. The protesters had also helped militants to escape at Warwun-Newa village in Pulwama.
Sources said in the 13 occasions where protesters provided cover to militants to escape, police had information about the presence of 27 terrorists. ''Some militants escaped due to protests and stone pelting, and others survived because the operations were called off in the face violent protests,'' sources said.
The police and other security agencies have fine tuned the cordon and search operations, but stone pelting mobs have been difficult to tackle. Since February, more than two dozen civilians have been killed in firing by security forces in clashes at encounter sites.
On May 9, four civilians were killed in clashes with security forces in Budgam during bypolls to Srinagar Lok Sabha constituency.
The crowd swarming at encounter sites continues to be a major challenge for the security forces in Kashmir as protesters are undeterred by the fear of death.