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Crocodiles of Wullar

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From The Week, 24 January 1999 (By Tariq Ahmad Bhat)

Dusk over the Wullar Lake is reminiscent of an Alistair MacLean film. Amid the cackling flocks of migratory greylag geese, pochards and shovellers wintering on the lake, a creature descends, crocodile-like, into its depths. Underwater, the lithe swimmer inspects the belly of an anchored houseboat for explosives planted by militants. In the distance, a canoe cuts through the water, oars splashing. Its armed occupants furtively glance about, anxious to conceal their cargo of AK-47 rifles. Out of nowhere, the murky shape of an inflatable Navy craft materializes. The air reverberates with machine gun fire. Two militants drop dead, and the rest are nabbed in no time.

Operation Rakshak, the Indian Navy's first engagement with COIN Opeartions, seems to have clicked. Taking to water like ducks, the elite Marine Commandos (MARCOS) complement Army operations on the Wullar Lake, 35km north-west of Srinagar. Although siltation and land reclamation have reduced Asia's largest freshwater lake to 65 sq. km from over 200 sq. km at the turn of the century, it was still the preferred transit route for militants infiltrating from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. MARCOS plugged the water route, forcing militants onto land, where they were besieged by troops of the 13 J&K Rifles, the 14 and 15 Rashtriya Rifles and the Border Security Force (BSF).


MARCOS operators patrolling Lake Wullar in Kashmir. The weapon of choice for this unit is the 7.62mm AK-47.
[Image © India Today]

When the Army turned on the heat in the nearby Bandipore hills, militants tried boating into the lake, but operations at Leharpora, a finger-shaped village jutting into the lake, quashed their game plan. "4 Hizbul Mujahideen militants cornered in a Leharpora house by the 15 Rashtriya Rifles could not escape into the lake as we had ringed the area with assault boats," said a MARCOS Officer. The Marine Commandos waded into the marshes fringing the house, firing over the heads of the crouching Army Jawans. They also evacuated an Army casualty who had his chest ripped open by AK-47 rifle fire. Raised in 1987 and modeled on the U.S. Navy Seals, the MARCOS rough it out in intense 6 month stints on the Wullar, operating on high-powered inflatable rubber craft and running metal detectors over fishing boats. While lunch may be free, there are no fancy regimental mess dinners for MARCOS. The CO's wife, with her baby, lives on tinned food, braving it out in a living room, bedroom and dining room rolled into one.


MARCOS operators clad in wetsuits prepare to search a boat on Lake Wullar.
[Image © India Today]

Militants capitalized on the poverty of 500 fishermen of the 100 villages encircling the lake, using their boats for cheap passage. "Houseboats on the confluence of the Jhelum river and the lake provided hideouts for arms and militants," said Lt. Col. Jhadav, Commanding Officer of 15 Rashtriya Rifles. Tipped off by the fishermen, a MARCOS patrol ambushed Gudda Hajam of the Hizbullah, shredding his right shoulder with bullets. "The blood trail was picked up the next morning on the lake's banks," said a MARCOS Officer, "and Hajam was finally nailed in neighbouring Lankreshpora village." The MARCOS' dexterity in the water compensates for the shortfalls of the Army. In Bombay, a MARCOS training program involving exercises with Army Ghataks (Cdos.) has been introduced. Active in combat, the MARCOS wrested Jaffna and Trincomalee harbours in Operation Pawan in 1987, and in Operation Cactus in the Maldives, they slithered down from helicopters onto a ship of mercenaries who had nearly pulled off a coup. And now, patrolling the Wullar Lake by night, their carbines raised in anticipation, the MARCOS lie in wait for insurgents like crocodiles.

Last Updated on Sunday, 10 May 2009 23:16  

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