Srinagar: The Indian Army early Friday launched a massive manhunt for terrorists involved in Thursday’s deadly ambush in which four soldiers were killed and three others critically wounded in the Surankote tehsil of Jammu and Kashmir’s frontier Poonch district.

Some reports say that five Army jawans lost their lives when two vehicles- a Maruti Gypsy and a 1-ton truck-came under a sneak attack by a group of heavily equipped Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) cadres in the Dera ki Gali area of Poonch. However, Nagrota (Jammu)—based White Knight Corps in a post on ‘X’ mentioned only four fatal casualties in the deadly attack.

It said, "Indian Army and White Knight Corps salutes the bravery and supreme sacrifice of four soldiers in #Surankote on 21 Dec 23 while fighting the scourge of terrorism."

The jawans belonging to the 48 Rashtriya Rifles on board these vehicles were going to reinforce a joint operation against militants in the Dera ki Gali area that had begun on Wednesday evening.

Reports from Thanamandi, an area in neighbouring Rajouri district, which falls in proximity of Dera ki Gali said hundreds of Army troops including elite PARA Commandos early Friday moved in the militancy-infested areas of Poonch-Rajouri region along with huge contingents of the J&K police’s counterinsurgency Special Operations Group and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to chase the militants. "A massive cordon-and-search operation has begun this morning after a night cordon in the area," a defence spokesman said in Jammu.

The areas where searches are underway are surrounded by dense forests. The police officials said that like in the past the militants may have fled into woods after carrying out the attack on the Army vehicles at Dhatyar Morh between Dera ki Gali and Bufliaz under the jurisdiction of the Surankote police station of Poonch. "We have learned that after carrying out such attacks they quickly flee into the forests and then use the natural caverns and other mountain hollows as sanctuaries," said a police officer. After killing and mounding the soldiers, the assailants had decamped with their weapons, a report said.

The Indian Army on Friday flew its helicopters over the area for the aerial monitoring and also pressed sniffer dogs into service to track down the militants, the officials said. The General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the White Knight Corps, Lt. General Sandeep Jain, visited Ground Zero and reviewed the situation with top Army and police officers, officials added. The police said that SSP Poonch Vinay Kumar and several other senior officers are also camping in the area to supervise the operation.

A National Investigation Agency (NIA) team also visited the scene of the terror attack. The NIA acts as the Central Counter Terrorism Law Enforcement Agency and is empowered to deal with terror related crimes across states and union territories without special permission from them. The National Investigation Act, 2008 gives the agency powers to take suo motu cognisance of terror activities in any part of the country and register a case. In 2019, the act was amended to expand the type of offences the agency could investigate and prosecute including the ones coming under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908.

The Indian Army has suffered heavy losses in the twin border districts of Poonch and Rajouri during the past few months. Five of its jawans were killed in an attack by militants in the Dera Ki Gali area itself on October 11. Following this attack, the Army, the J&K police and other security forces had intensified their operation ‘flush out’ against a group of heavily armed militants which had taken positions at vantage points midst woods in the region in the Pir Panjal Range.

During this operation, two more Army soldiers including a Junior Commissioned Officer lost their lives on October 16. In an almost month-long operation in which Army’s PARA Commandos also took part, as many as nine army personnel including two JCOs were killed. On November 22, five soldiers including two captains and two militants were killed in a two-day-long gun battle at Bajimaal in Rajouri.

The Army and police sources said that the region has witnessed nine major terror attacks and encounters since October 11, 2021 when five Army jawans including a JCO lost their lives in a clash with militants in Chamrer woods of Surankote. In these incidents as many as 36 soldiers and officers have laid down their lives, twenty of them this year, so far.

Pir Panjal Range is a chain of mountains in the Lower Himalayan region located in the Western Himalayas of the subcontinent. Poonch-Rajouri is located near the Line of Control (LoC). Poonch shares a de facto border with the Poonch district of the Pakistan-occupied-Jammu and Kashmir.

In the past, the Indian Army officials have said that because of the vastness of the area with thick forests and undergrowth the security forces often find it difficult to "establish physical contact with the terrorists who sometimes also choose to move to the other side of the LoC to escape combing and search operations".