ANANTNAG: Considered a highly political sensitive area of the Valley, South Kashmir is fast turning into a virtual breeding ground for militants with many youths joining their rank and file or becoming their sympathisers.
Better intelligence network of terrorists, assistance of people to local terrorists, heavy turnouts at the funerals of militants and stone-pelting on security forces even during encounters has virtually become a routine affair in the region.
Comprising of four districts-- Anantnag, Kulgam, Pulwama and Shopian-- South Kashmir has been on the boil ever since Chief Commander of banned Lashker-e-Taiba (LeT) group Abu Qassim was gunned down in a fierce encounter in November last year.
Driving past the dusty roads of this area dotted with many tourist spots, one can see signs of slogans favouring 'independence', support to terror groups and glorification of militants killed in encounters with the security forces.
Senior security officials spoken to in this area are cautious of the new developments which include firings in air as a "salute to the killed terrorists", prominent militants attending the funeral of killed ultras, with the police and security forces remaining mere spectators.
Last year, out of the 90 youths, who had joined militant groups, 80 per cent of them hailed from various districts of South Kashmir alone.
While figures for this year were being collated, intelligence reports suggest that 17 youths from some villages of Kulgam, Pulwama and Tral areas had disappeared quietly and joined militant ranks.
The worst-hit areas in the area are Heff-Shrimal in Shopian district, Samboora, Lillahar, Pulwama town and Tral of Pulwama district, Qaimooh and Redhwani in Kulgam district and Redhwani in Anantnag district.
These are the areas which are dotted with apple orchards and lead to dense forests where militants are holed up, the officials said, adding that in case the army mounts pressure on one side, they escape and mingle with the local population on the other.
The intelligence network of the militant groups, which had ended in mid-1990's, is understood to have revived again and the terrorists come to know about the advancements of security forces, giving them an advantage to flee the area, the officials said.
The adjoining jungles which are dotted with Poplar and Pine trees provide a platform for terrorists to train new recruits, the officials said, adding there have been information that militants were being trained in Kamla forest of Shopian district but when raids were conducted, no one could be found.
Army, which has a 'Victor Force' involved in the counter insurgency grid, has been engaging almost on daily basis with terrorists on intelligence gathered by their units from internet chatters, they said, adding local intelligence, which was the main forte of the Jammu and Kashmir police till 2014, has started dwindling and seldom any actionable information was being shared.
Militants carrying cash rewards on their head have been seen attending funerals of slain militants, the officials said and cited photographic evidence to suggest that Majid Zargar of Lashker-e-Taiba had attended the funeral of Showkat Gojri, another Lashker militant who was killed in an encounter.
"The growth of home-grown militants is a big problem for us. These boys get local support and it is difficult to nab them. Even if they are trapped at a place, the army, besides fighting a gun battle, has also to face the local population which starts pelting stones at the jawans engaged in the encounter," a senior Army official said.
Inputs about the presence of proclaimed militants has been shared with police and other central agencies but none of them act on it fearing public backlash, the officials said.
The attendance of local population in the last rites of terrorists can be gauged from that fact that thousands turned up for the funeral of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Dawood Sheikh on March 8 despite restrictions.
The heavy turnout of people forced the family to hold six 'Namaz-e-zinaja' (final prayers) as the ground at Qaimoh that could hold only 1,500 people.
Having a population of over 23 lakh, South Kashmir, which has been political quite active, is also considered the bastion of Jamaat-e-Islamia group and have been traditionally voting for PDP.
The defunct Muslim United Front (MUF) of late 1980's, many of whose sympathisers had picked up guns in 1990s following alleged rigging in 1987 elections, was born in South Kashmir and so was PDP, which had formed an alliance government with the BJP in March last year.