Attacks by suspected militants on an Indian airbase in Punjab state and the Indian consulate in Afghanistan are a ploy to derail improving relations between India and Pakistan, analysts say.
In their view, the leaders of the two nations – bitter rivals since the Indian sub-continent was partitioned in 1947 – should stay the course and not let such attacks disturb the bilateral peace process.
“The recent attacks should not have any immediate impact on the impending talks,” New Delhi-based political analyst Imtiyaz Ahmad told BenarNews, referring to foreign secretary-level talks between the two nations slated for Jan. 15
“There is no alternative for the two countries but to talk to address issues concerning them. The dialogue process at whatever level should continue even if attacks by militants continue,” he added.
Four days after “six Pakistani intruders” launched an attack Saturday on the Indian Air Force Station in Pathankot, some 40 km (25 miles) from the Pakistani border, security forces had “neutralized all six attackers,” Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar told reporters on Tuesday.
Seven security personnel, including an Air Force commando, lost their lives in the subsequent combing operation to flush out the intruders. Parrikar said the operation would likely end on Wednesday after security forces finished scouring the 1,600-acre air base, strewn with “almost 50 kgs of ammunition and explosives.”
“Two of the terrorists’ bodies are burnt beyond recognition. There are indications that some of the explosives were made in Pakistan,” he added.
A day after the attack on the airbase, armed assailants tried to storm the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif city on Sunday. This led to a fierce 25-hour gun battle with security forces that ended Monday when the three attackers were killed, according to media reports.
On Tuesday, an explosion was reported near the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s Jalalabad city. But it was still unclear whether the Indian mission was the target of an assault.
The attacks came days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to his Pakistani counterpart in Lahore on Dec. 25, in a bid to smooth long-strained bilateral ties.
The attacks represent attempts by certain groups to disturb the peace process, said A.S. Dulat, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency.
“The [Pathankot] attack does not come as much of a surprise as certain groups that are against peace between India and Pakistan have carried out similar assaults each time the two sides have initiated confidence-building measures,” Dulat told BenarNews.
“Such attacks must not deter the course of talks in any manner,” Dulat added.
New details on Pathankot assault
According to a Reuters report, the United Jihad Council (UJC), an alliance of 13 pro-Pakistan groups based in the Pakistani-administered part of the disputed region of Kashmir, has claimed responsibility for the Pathankot attack.
The Indian security establishment, however, rejected that claim outright on Tuesday and squarely blamed the militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) for carrying out the assault.
Intelligence units intercepted four phone calls made by the suspected militants to Pakistan hours before they attacked the air base, a source told BenarNews.
Three of the calls were to their alleged handlers – Abdul Rauf Asghar, Ashfaq Ahmad and Qasim Khan – who are suspected to be JeM operatives, the source said.
The aim of the assault was to destroy the MiG-21 warplanes and Mi-35 attack helicopters that are housed at the base, the source added.
India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) has started probing the Pathankot attack, Defense Minister Parrikar said.
NIA chief Sharad Kumar told reporters in New Delhi that his agency had credible information that the attackers were Pakistani nationals, but he did not elaborate.
‘Cool heads must prevail’
JeM, or the Army of Mohammed, was founded by Masood Azhar following his release from an Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian airliner.
Two years later, the group together with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant outfit, launched a daring attack on the Indian parliament that brought the two nations to the brink of war.
But in a clear sign that the recent assaults may not affect the recently gained momentum in bilateral ties, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was on a state visit to Sri Lanka, called Modi on Tuesday to express “sorrow and grief” at the losses suffered in the air base attack.
Sharif assured India that his government would take “prompt and decisive action” against the attackers, the Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement.
Modi “strongly emphasized the need for Pakistan to take firm and immediate action against the organizations and individuals responsible for and linked to the Pathankot terrorist attack,” the statement said, adding that “specific and actionable information in this regard has been provided to Pakistan.”
Pakistani media praised India – which has not yet pointed a finger at Pakistan for the Pathankot attack, calling it only a Fidayeen (suicide) mission – for resisting public calls to go into attack mode against Pakistan.
“The Indian response is more muted than in the past and Pakistan has been quick to condemn the attack,” said an editorial in Dawn, a leading Pakistani daily. It added that if the attack was conclusively linked to Pakistan, authorities should act decisively against the perpetrators.
There is a need for a “sensible, cooperative approach” to thwart “political motives of terrorists,” the editorial said, adding, “Cool heads must prevail, and the talks must proceed.”
Akash Vashishtha contributed to this report.