Thursday’s attack is the latest in a series of incidents in which armed fighters have killed Indian soldiers.
Four Indian soldiers were killed, and three others were wounded after suspected rebels ambushed Indian military vehicles in the southernmost border district of Rajouri in Indian-administered Kashmir, officials said on Friday.
An Indian army official told Al Jazeera that the attack took place on Thursday afternoon when two army vehicles – a mini-truck and a gypsy – carrying nine soldiers were moving to a site where a search operation was under way to find the suspected rebels in Rajouri.
In a statement on Thursday evening, the Indian army said that their “troops immediately retaliated”.
Following the attack, the Indian army launched a major operation in the area to nab the attackers who are believed to be hiding in the dense forest area. Nearby areas were also cordoned off. So far, however, the army has not declared any casualties among the armed rebels.
Rajouri and Poonch districts are the hilly areas close to the Line of Control (LoC), a demarcation line between the Indian and Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir.
The armed rebellion in Kashmir, which is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, but ruled in parts by the two neighbours, has been continuing since the 1990s against Indian rule. India accuses Pakistan of financing and arming the rebellion.
New Delhi has struggled for decades to completely suppress anti-India sentiments in Kashmir.
In August 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status, guaranteed under the Indian constitution when the former king of Kashmir acceded to the Indian Union in 1948. Earlier this week, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the Modi government’s decision. India has also divided what was a full-fledged state into two federally ruled territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
While the Kashmir region has been a hotbed for dissent for decades, since 2021 districts like Rajouri and Poonch in the Jammu region have witnessed an uptick in the rebel attacks against Indian soldiers, and 2023 has been particularly deadly for Indian soldiers.
In all, 34 Indian soldiers have been killed in Kashmir since 2021,19 since April.
A little-known rebel outfit, Peoples Anti-Fascist Front, which officials have said is the proxy of Pakistan-based armed group Jaish-e-Muhammad, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, including the latest one.
The renewed attacks, observers said, have become a new challenge to the government in New Delhi which has claimed that its controversial policies have improved the security landscape in the region.
In November, five soldiers including two army captains were killed in an operation in the same district in Kalakote, Rajouri. In September, four army personnel were killed in a gunfight in the forests of Kokernag near Anantnag district. In April and May this year, 10 soldiers were killed in the two districts.
A senior security official in the southern city of Jammu, who was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera that the tough terrain of southern Kashmir is a safe haven for armed fighters to launch such kind of attacks.
“Forests give enemies anonymity, space to operate and conceal themselves to outfox the security dragnet,” he said.
Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, told Al Jazeera, that most of the recent killings of army soldiers had occurred in army-initiated operations. “This seems the pattern that has been followed by most of the recent incidents in which security forces have lost their lives,” Sahni said.
When asked about the claims of the government about normalcy in Kashmir amid the uptick in attacks on the soldiers, Sahni said “I don’t believe that normalcy has returned after Article 370 abrogation,” referring to the Constitutional provision that gave Jammu and Kashmir greater autonomy than other states.
“What is normalcy? This [Kashmir] is a theatre which has seen up to 4000 deaths in a single year in 2001,” Sahni said. “So, to expect no incidents to occur, it’s unrealistic. The government has made extremely unrealistic projections and claims about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. “