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12 Jul 2017

Driver saves lives in ride through bullets

Salim Sheikh
MUZAFFAR RAINA ,TT,  AND PTI,  Srinagar, July 11: The bullets kept thudding into the bus but driver Salim Sheikh didn't lose his cool. He kept driving.
It was only after he had driven for another 2km that he eased his foot off the accelerator.
Salim's split-second decision to drive on through the spray of bullets saved the lives of dozens of pilgrims when the bus from south Gujarat's Valsad town came under attack last night in Kashmir's Anantnag district.
Had he braked, the number of casualties may have been higher than the seven who died in the firing.
"If we are alive today it is by God's grace and the bravery of the driver. It was pitch dark and he continued driving," Amit Kumar, a cook who was accompanying the 50-odd pilgrims, said. "Had he panicked, more lives would have been lost."
Pallavi Abhayankar, 55, a music teacher who survived the attack, said the driver's presence of mind saved many lives. "Had it not been for the driver, the toll would have been higher," she said.
"The terrorists fired from the front and the right side of the bus. Most people who died or were injured were those sitting on the right side."
Officials said the militants - apparently there were two groups that attacked the bus twice within minutes - pumped dozens of bullets into the bus as the ambushed pilgrims screamed in terror. "But the brave driver continued to drive," said a woman, one of the 19 injured in the attack.
The Jammu and Kashmir government has announced an award of Rs 3 lakh for Salim for his exemplary bravery. The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board has announced a separate reward of Rs 2 lakh.
The bodies of the seven dead pilgrims were today brought to Surat airport along with those injured and their family members in an air force plane.
Salim today recalled those tense minutes when the bullets zipped past him. "The firing was intense. God gave me strength and I continued driving. I decided to keep on driving, and ducked to avoid getting hit. I kept on driving until we reached a safe place," he told reporters at Surat airport.
The safe place was a security force camp, some 2km from the place where the bus was ambushed a little after 8pm. Security force personnel later helped take the injured to hospitals.
Salim had ducked but three bullets hit the bus owner, Harsh Desai, who was sitting by his side. Desai fell down. "I asked him to keep driving until we reach a military camp. He kept on driving for 2km and stopped only after reaching the military camp," Desai said.
Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani said he would recommend both Salim and Desai to the Centre for a bravery award. "I salute Salim Sheikh and Harsh Desai as I have learnt that they showed exemplary courage by driving the bus for almost 2km despite heavy firing by terrorists," Rupani said.
"I would like to thank them for the way they saved the lives of pilgrims.... Had they stopped, many more might have been killed."
Although Salim has emerged as the hero of the day, denying the terrorists an opportunity to get on the bus, police said he was basically in violation of the rules for the pilgrimage. Pilgrimage rules ban Yatra vehicles from the highways after 7pm as the security cover is withdrawn at that hour.
Apparently, the bus had got delayed by an hour because of a flat tyre at a place called Sangam in Anantnag. But with the bus leaving Srinagar at 5pm on a journey that takes five to six hours, it would have anyway overshot the 7pm deadline by hours.
The bus had also not been registered for the pilgrimage, the reason security force personnel were not escorting it. Pilgrims have to register themselves with the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. After that they move in convoys under heavy security.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY OUR BUREAU IN NEW DELHI

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