Three years ago on this day, the Indian Army suffered its biggest loss in the past two decades in Jammu and Kashmir. In the early hours of September 18, 2016, four heavily armed terrorists crossed the Line of Control (LoC), trekked for about six kilometres, breached a heavily guarded military camp in the Uri town of Jammu and Kashmir and launched a massive grenade attack.
The target -- a temporary fuel depot housing hundreds of litres of petrol, diesel and kerosene -- was carefully chosen for its inflammatory potential. Adjacent to the fuel depot were canvas tents where soldiers of the 5 Bihar were sleeping.
The grenade attack, compounded by the massive explosions at the fuel depot, gutted the tents. At least 14 soldiers were engulfed in the flames. Four more were killed by the terrorists as they tried to escape the blaze.
Why were the soldiers sleeping in canvas tents? Why were the tents pitched so close to the fuel depot? We will come to these questions later.
THE ATTACK ::
Investigation into the Uri terror attack later revealed that all four terrorists were carrying AK-47 rifles that had grenade launchers clipped under their barrels. The scale of their raid can be understood from the fact that the four terrorists were carrying more than 50 incendiary grenades that were especially designed to set off fires.
Armed with these special grenades, the terrorists exploded the fuel depot. According to India Today magazine's cover story on the Uri terror attack, the fuel depot housed hundreds of 200-litre oil barrels. These barrels had diesel for trucks, petrol for Maruti Gypsies of the 12th brigade based near Uri and kerosene for cooking food in high-altitude posts on the Pir Panjal range.
Around 5.30 am, the four terrorists fired a barrage of over a dozen incendiary grenades. Soon, there was fire all around, engulfing the soldiers.
The Uri attack killed 18 soldiers and injured more than 30 others. The forces managed to gun down all four terrorists, but by then they had inflicted heavy loss upon the Indian Army.
The headquarters of the Indian Army's 12th Brigade that were attacked on September 18, 2016 are located in Uri, a town that had been largely peaceful in the last few decades. Besides, the 12th Brigade headquarters in Uri is a virtual oasis, protected naturally by the high ranges of the Pir Panjal and the Jhelum river that flows by.
"The place just does not lend itself to any manner of attack," an Indian Army officer who has done several tours of duty in the insurgent Kashmir Valley, had told India Today magazine after the Uri terror attack.
THE WEAK POINT ::
The Uri terror attack was executed at a strategically significant time. It was a time when there was movement of troops in the region. One battalion had completed its two-year tenure and was moving out, while another was coming in to a new location.
The 'handing-taking over' process was reportedly on and that perhaps explains the breach in security. Army officers, speaking to India Today magazine in 2016, indicated that the reason why soldiers of 5 Bihar (the battalion that was replacing a Dogra unit) had to sleep in canvas tents, despite the fact that there were empty barracks available in the camp, was that the handing taking process was not yet complete.
Besides this, pitching canvas tents for the soldiers just next to a major fuel depot was in breach of laid-down guidelines of the Army. The guidelines, as per Army officers, are clear that no human habitation should be allowed within 1 km of a fuel station.
Call it negligence or diversion of attention due to troop movement and the handing-taking process, this major violation went unnoticed and resulted in a catastrophe for the Army.
WHAT FOLLOWED ::
The Uri terror attack came eight months after six terrorists attacked the strategically important Pathankot airbase in neighbouring Punjab on January 1, 2016. There too, the terrorists had been able to inflict damage on a sensitive Indian military installation along the border. Six military personnel were killed in the attack.
The scale of the Uri terror attack was such that the government had no option other than responding strongly. But to send a strong message, it was felt that this action could not be limited to a routine scale up of anti-terror operations in Kashmir.
Soon, the government gave the Army a freehand to carry out "surgical strikes" against terror launch pads on and along the Line of Control. In subsequent days, the Army said it was able to destroy massive infrastructure that was being routinely used as terror launch pads by Pakistan along the LoC to destabilise law and order in Kashmir.