Gunmen Attack Indian Air Force Base

Akash Vashishtha
160102-IN-attack-620 Indian security personnel position themselves on a rooftop in after suspected JeM militants attacked Pathankot Indian Air Force base, Jan. 2, 2016.

In a daring terrorist strike in the northern Indian state of Punjab that could pose a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent diplomacy with Pakistan, three security men were killed when militants attacked an Indian Air Force (IAF) base near the border on Saturday.

Five terrorists, who are suspected members of terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), were killed in the gun battle that lasted more than 15 hours in the town of Pathankot, some 40 km (25 miles) from the Pakistani border.

Defense sources told BenarNews that an unknown number of terrorists armed with hand grenades and AK-47 assault rifles launched an attack on the Pathankot IAF base at 3:30 a.m. Saturday.

The hunt for more militants will resume Sunday, sources said, adding that combat forces including Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) and aerial surveillance teams had sealed all exit points.

“Combing is still on. We cannot say at the moment for how long it would continue. But we are on the job,” Ravinder Kumar Bakshi, Pathankot’s senior superintendent of police, told BenarNews.

The militants are suspected of crossing into India from the Bahawalpur area of Pakistan on Dec. 31, passing through a thickly forested canal linked to the Beas River that cuts across the fencing on the border.

The IAF said in a statement the militants were detected by its aerial surveillance teams just as they entered the Pathankot air base. The militants hurled grenades and opened fire, killing three air force personnel, including a commando.

Intelligence reports

“Intelligence inputs had been available of a likely attempt by terrorists to infiltrate into the military installation in Pathankot area. In response, preparatory actions had been taken by the IAF to thwart any such attempt,” the statement said.

“The infiltrators were immediately engaged and contained within a limited area, thus preventing them from entering the technical zone where high value assets are parked.”

An official at the Pathankot Air Force Station told BenarNews the intruders wanted to set fire to the fuel for MiG21 fighters and Mi-35 attack helicopters housed at the base. That attempt was foiled.

Intelligence sources told BenarNews that the suspected JeM operatives robbed a police superintendant, Salwinder Singh, of his mobile phone after assaulting him on Friday and “made four calls between 12:35 a.m. and 1:40 a.m. (Saturday) to Pakistan from the officer’s phone.

Militants called handlers, family

“Three of those calls were made to their handlers, while one of them was to one of their family members,” the official said.

In one of the intercepted conversations, one of the militants reportedly told his mother, “I am on a suicide mission,” to which his mother replied, “Eat something before you die,” the official said.

The other three calls, the official said, were made to Abdul Rauf Asghar, Ashfaq Ahmad and Qasim Khan, who are suspected of being the masterminds of the attack.

Maulana Masood Azhar, JeM’s chief, was released from an Indian prison in exchange for passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC814 in December 1999.

The group later associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which together perpetrated a daring attack in 2001 on the Indian Parliament house in which militants drove into the complex in an official vehicle and opened fire. Afzal Guru, a native of Jammu and Kashmir, was executed by India in 2013 for his role in the attack.

Rajesh Verma, a resident of Gurdaspur, who was with police superintendant Singh when the Pathankot attackers assaulted the duo, said the men “kept saying they had come to avenge Afzal Guru’s death” as they continued hitting them with rifle butts.

The attack comes just days after Modi met Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on Dec. 25 in a surprise visit on his way back to India from Afghanistan.

Despite criticism over Modi’s gesture toward his Pakistani counterpart, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said India wanted peace with its neighbors but would not tolerate any aggression or terror attack.

“We received (terror) inputs and our security forces and police adopted care and resisted the attack with success. I must congratulate them. Had the intelligence not been there, the magnitude of attack could have been unimaginable,” Singh said.

“The Jaish-e-Mohammad hand (in the latest attack) cannot be ruled out,” he said, adding that India had “the might to counter any kind of terrorism, whatsoever.”

Modi tweeted, “Enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress, such elements attacked in Pathankot but our security forces did not let them succeed.”

Even as the attack raises questions over confidence in the Indian government toward peace with Pakistan, security experts said the incident needed to be investigated from specific angles, including any local support.

“These kind of Fidayeen (suicide) attacks pose several questions. We must seriously look into the possibility of local support in such attacks,” A.S. Dulat, former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency, told BenarNews.

He added that the latest attack must not derail recently improving ties with Pakistan.

“The National Security Adviser-level and Foreign Secretary-level talks are a great step and the dialogue process must continue,” he said.

The Pakistani government has denied any involvement in the Pathankot attack.

While condemning the attack, the Pakistan foreign office said in a statement:  “Building on the goodwill created during the recent high-level contacts between the two countries, Pakistan remains committed to partner with India to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting South Asian region.”


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