Samba attack: Armoured unit used 5 tanks, CO tried to run over terrorist
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The attackers had held the unit hostage for several hours, killing four soldiers, including its second-in-command.
While a major tragedy was averted as the terrorists, who had sneaked in from across the international border, did not stumble across families of officers trapped in the officers' mess that was attacked, the armoured unit — raised for a different kind of war — was neither trained nor equipped to handle the terror attack.
In the melee that ensued, the battalion responded in a manner that many in the military are now questioning: five tanks deployed, high explosive rounds fired into the building, the second-in-command shot while trying to fetch weapons, and even an attempt to run over a fleeing terrorist with a 40-tonne main battle tank.
The unit, the first one located on the road that connects Kathua to Samba, had only one sentry on duty at the officers' mess entrance gate instead of the standard two-man team.
The main entrance gate to the battalion area was better guarded but its most vulnerable point — the mess where officers gather for meals, unarmed — was not tough for the attackers to access.
Arriving at the unit at around 7.30 am, when troops were engaged in the "gun cleaning" drill of the tanks, the three militants shot the single sentry and entered the mess area, killing the orderly on duty. They meticulously went through each room of the mess, using grenades, but could not find the officers as they were in the field.
The next casualty was Lt Col Bikramjit Singh, the second-in-command, who rushed out from his accommodation adjacent to the mess and was racing towards a guard room along with a soldier when the militants spotted them and opened fire.
The panicked unit, hit by the loss of a senior officer, moved in five of its main battle tanks around the mess area to flush out the terrorists. The commanding officer himself was in one of these tanks, which are ill equipped to deal with individual gunmen.
An account by an unnamed officer of the unit, which is seen as a fairly accurate version of events, says that commanding officer Col Avin Uthaiya was first hit by a terrorist when he approached the mess area on foot, prompting him to get into a tank.
The account says the officer even tried to run over a militant, who had come out in the open from a building, with his tank. The CO was shot in the chest while sitting in the main battle tank, when a second militant who was on the first floor of the building sprayed automatic fire, and had to be evacuated.
Angered by the casualties it had suffered, the unit attempted to target the militants on the first floor of the building with high explosive tank rounds. At least two such rounds were fired into the building the terrorists were hiding in but could not inflict damage on them.
The firing stopped only after a quick reaction team of the 2 Sikh posted in Samba reached the spot and took control. The 2 Sikh team is believed to have been heading for the Hiranagar police station that had first been attacked by the militants after receiving a SOS call but diverted to 16 Cavalry.
In the end, the three terrorists were neutralised in a joint operation by the 2 Sikh team and special troops of the 9 Para Commandos who were called in by the brigade headquarters. A detailed court of inquiry will now bring out the lapses that led to the attack and the heavy casualties on 16 Cavalry but the incident has prompted a review of the security and preparedness of all Army units in the area even up to Pathankot, given the risk of a repeat - terrorists crossing the relatively "easy" international border and inflicting heavy damage on India's war-waging apparatus aimed at Pakistan.
The inquiry will also deal with how a general warning could not be issued about the attackers despite the fact that the first strike by them occurred one-and-a-half hours before they entered the Army camp, at the Hiranagar police station.
Preliminary reports suggest that an SoS call was generated up the police chain of command and the Jammu-based 16 Corps was alerted. However, the gravity of the attack perhaps was not conveyed, nor details of the attack passed on in full. What happened after the message was relayed to the Army will be a matter of investigation for the court of inquiry.
The Samba cavalry unit is not part of the 16 Corps, whose headquarters is geographically closer, but comes under the Yol-based 9 Corps. Also, the 9 Corps is under the Western Command while the 16 Corps is under the Northern Command.