Movement of eight cadre of Naga insurgent group NSCN-K(YA) near Oting village in Nagaland’s Mon district in a Bolero car at a definitive time – a “very specific” intelligence input along these lines, explicitly detailing the movement of insurgents, had led the Army to launch the failed operation that claimed the lives of 13 civilians on Saturday evening, defence officials told News18.com.
Defence sources privy to the developments said that an “unfortunate sequence of events” led to the “botched” operation involving a Para Special Forces unit, but the Nagaland government officials provide a different account of the incident.
As per defence officials, a surveillance party of the ambush team was to keep a watch on the vehicle that was to carry the insurgents and then inform the main party who were to fire at them.
“The surveillance party saw a vehicle approaching with eight people in it. One of them was carrying a hunter rifle, which was mistaken to be an actual assault rifle from a distance. Others were carrying a local weapon ‘dao’ strapped to their chests,” a defence official said.
“It is unfortunate that the surveillance party got the impression that they were the insurgents and passed it to the main party, which was ready to fire. However, as the vehicle came closer, the main ambush party was not sure if the target was correct, so they initially tried stopping the vehicle and then fired at its tyres,” the official said.
“However, the civilians who were in the vehicle did not stop and perhaps got scared and started running away, which reinforced the impression that they were the target insurgents,” the official said.
The official added that the security forces fired at the people subsequently, and six of them died on the spot. Two were injured and taken to a nearby hospital.
Local sources in the Nagaland government, however, said the unarmed civilians were “randomly killed” by the security forces, who, they alleged, did not make any attempt at identification. They said the civilians, who were working in the coal mines of Tiru valley, were travelling in an open truck in “broad daylight” but were still fired upon.
The exact sequence of events gets hazier hereon as different accounts have emerged from the defence and state government officials.
Security sources claim that some of the Army personnel involved in the ambush realised the mistake immediately, took the injured to the hospital and some of them waited for the police to arrive. But Nagaland government sources alleged that local villagers found the Army personnel at the spot trying to hide the bodies of the six dead civilians by wrapping and loading them in another pickup truck, apparently to take them to their base camp.
Defence sources said that soon after the firing, the Army troops realised it was case of mistaken identity and waited for three hours for the police to arrive. They said that around 7:30 pm, local villagers started approaching the spot.
“Even as the Army personnel at the spot tried to talk to the local villagers and resolve the matter, a clash broke out that resulted in the killing of an Army jawan. It was then that the Army had to resort to firing again in self-defence to disperse the crowd, in which seven other civilians were killed,” the source said.
However, state sources said when the villagers reached the spot in the evening to look for the deceased, they found the bodies in a vehicle under a tarpaulin. It was then that violence broke out between them and the security personnel, during which they burnt three vehicles of the Special Forces personnel.
State sources added that security forces opened fire then, killing seven more civilians and said eyewitnesses have confirmed that the Special Forces personnel opened fire “indiscriminately” as they “fled from the scene” towards Assam. Forces also allegedly fired at the coal mine hutments on the way.
As many as 14 civilians were grievously injured and eight received minor injuries.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday told Parliament that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) has been formed to probe the incident and the report will be submitted within a month.
Additionally, the Army has set up a Court of Inquiry (CoI).
Amit Shah also said that the vehicle that was suspected to be carrying the insurgents was trying to flee and was thus fired upon, resulting in the killing of six of the eight passengers. He said two persons who sustained injuries were evacuated to the medical facilities by Army personnel.
It is yet to be established whether the intel, based on which the operation was carried out, was correct. “We are not sure about that right now. Even if it was correct, the insurgents could have fled the spot on hearing the firing,” a defence source said.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), meanwhile, has issued notices to the Centre and the Nagaland government over the killings. The NHRC has “taken suo motu cognisance of media reports on the killing of civilians when their vehicle was fired upon in an alleged botched-up operation by the Army Para Commandos, lying in wait for militants in Mon district of Nagaland late Saturday", it said in a statement.
The commission has issued notices to the Defence Secretary, Union Home Secretary, Chief Secretary and the Nagaland Director General of Police, seeking a detailed report within six weeks, the statement added.
Situation remains tense in Mon
Naga insurgent group NSCN–K (YA) remains active in this district that borders Myanmar, aside from the Tirap, Longding and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
On Sunday, the local Konyak union organised a mass funeral service for the 13 dead civilians in Mon. But as per the state government, it was postponed to a day later but no clear announcement was made on the same.
This, the state government noted, led to confusion, triggering an agitated mob to first vandalise the Konyak Union office and then proceed towards the 27th Assam Rifles post. The mob attacked the post with stones, damaged property and set fire to three buildings.
The state government further noted that the district administration and police officials tried to reason with the mob, which comprised 600-700 people armed with sticks, pipes and flammable fluids as well as machetes and daos.
A second round of continuous firing by Assam Rifles led to the mob dispersing, but one person was killed and six others injured, including one Nagaland Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) personnel.
The incident has led to renewed calls for the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to be repealed in the Northeast, with Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio and Meghayala chief minister Conrad K Sangma echoing the same on social media.
News18 had earlier reported that the Army will review its decision to reduce the number of troops deployed on counter-insurgency duties in the Northeast and will realign their deployments in the wake of a spate of insurgency-related incidents in the region.