After night fell on Pathankot, a fifth terrorist has been confirmed killed as a fierce gun battle sparked by Pakistani terrorists spilled over into Day 3 at a heavily fortified Indian Air Force base here on Monday. The search for hidden attackers continues at the air base in a counter-terror offensive that began last week and India has announced it would decide on foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan slated for January 15 only after the operation is over. The attack has dragged on since early Saturday morning as government troops struggle to contain the heavily armed attackers. At least twice over the weekend it appeared that the attack had ended but fresh gunfire and explosions erupted both times.
The search operations at Pathankot air force base will continue until all areas have been completely secured, Maj. Gen. Dushyant Singh, from India's elite National Security Guard, told reporters. Singh said that it will take a "long time" to declare the base completely secure because of its size and geography. It is spread over more than 2,000 acres, including forests and tall grass.
The commanding officer of the base, Lt. Col. J.S. Dhamoon, described it as a "mini-city" with homes and a school for the children of the personnel stationed there.
Defense officials have said authorities had been alerted about a potential attack in the area on Friday, and that aerial surveillance at the base spotted the gunmen as they entered the compound, leading to criticism of the handling of the situation.
An army statement said the last gunmen were firing from a building that is part of the living quarters on the base.
At least six gunmen infiltrated the Pathankot Indian Air Force base near the Pakistan border on Saturday. They have killed at least seven Indian soldiers and injured at least 20.
Security sources told the Hindustan Times that that a sixth terrorist too had likely been killed but official confirmation would come only after his "badly disfigured body" is identified. The Indian Express also reports on a sixth "badly charred body" at the scene of the attack. Associated Press reports that one gunman remains in the campus.
“The operations are still going on. We have been able to eliminate the fifth terrorist. Combing and search operations continue,” Major General Dushant Singh of the National Security Guard (NSG) told media.
Seven security personnel, including an officer of the National Security Guards (NSG), an IAF Garud commando and five Defence Services Corps (DSC) personnel, were killed by the terrorists. National security guard commando Niranjan Kumar's sister says the country should remember her brother not just as a brave soldier but as a man who overcame personal hurdles to achieve his aim of serving the country before he fell to enemy bullets in Pathankot.
The United Jehad Council (UJC), an umbrella grouping of Kashmiri militant groups based in Pakistan, on Monday claimed responsibility for the attack.
The UJC, led by Syed Salahuddin, said the raid "was carried out by the national highway squad of the UJC".
The Dawn, a leading a Pakistani newspaper, on Monday urged Islamabad to act if it was proved that Pakistanis were involved in the terror attack.
Search and combing operations continued even on Monday evening, the third day of the attack.
How did they infiltrate?
The hijacking of a police officer's car by gunmen disguised in uniform should have set off alarm bells and helped prevent a deadly weekend attack on a military air base, officials and security experts said.
His colleagues' slowness to react was one of several security lapses in the buildup to the pre-dawn raid, blamed by India on Pakistani militants and a blow to the recent improvement in ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Three days on from an assault that killed seven military personnel and wounded 22, five attackers have also been eliminated, but an operation was still under way to secure the sprawling compound in Punjab that lies 25 km from the border with Pakistan.
Police Superintendent Salwinder Singh's call to a colleague in the early hours of Friday morning, after his car was hijacked, was at first treated as a case of armed robbery, the officer who answered the phone said.
"The truth is that we did not take Singh's complaint seriously, because his record has not been clean," a second senior officer in the Punjab police told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
The police sources said Singh had just been transferred after a woman constable filed a sexual harassment case against him. Singh, who was interrogated on Monday for six hours by federal investigators, could not be reached for comment.
Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi has said the location of the attackers was only pinpointed as Pathankot on Friday afternoon.
That was at least 12 hours after the seizure of Singh's unmarked vehicle, in which he was travelling with two other men following a visit to a shrine near the border with Pakistan.
"Too much time was wasted," said A.S. Dulat, a former head of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's main foreign intelligence agency. "How did they infiltrate to where they did? How were they allowed to roam around for 24 hours?"
Civilian and military officials say a security alert was circulated quickly enough to prevent the assailants from damaging fighter jets and helicopters at the base.
Nevertheless, a lack of inter-agency cooperation may have hobbled the security response, with another local police chief calling the air base a "fortress" that senior colleagues cannot enter without a written request.
"It always operated like a self-sufficient township but had no interaction with the city police or local administration," Manoj Kumar, Pathankot's deputy superintendent of police, told Reuters.
Dumped by the roadside
Singh's cook, Madan Gopal, said he was dumped by the roadside with his employer after a long drive during which their eyes were taped shut. The gunmen took fellow passenger Rajesh Verma, a jeweller, with them.
"We both walked for an hour to reach a nearby police outpost," Gopal, 61, told Reuters. "Singh got in touch with his superiors but they told him to go home and come to the office the next day."
Verma survived and testified to police that the attackers had used his phone, possibly to call their handlers, according to the Indian Express.
One local report said the assailants dumped Singh's car 500 metres from the base. How they got into the compound is still unclear. Once inside, they burst into a guards' mess and fired indiscriminately.
One guard tackled and killed an attacker, only to die from another gunman's bullet, said Air Commodore J.S. Dhamoon, commander of the base.
Three more suspected militants were killed later on Saturday after running through the compound, firing into windows.
The guard who died was a member of the Defence Security Corps (DSC), a unit made up of veterans who guard military facilities. Five of the seven military personnel to die served in the DSC, some of them in their fifties.
Some observers said the DSC should not guard high-value military assets.
"They were not up to speed," said Nitin Gokhale, a security analyst who edits a defence portal.
Yet the greater weakness at the base, with a 24-km perimeter and a 3-metre (10-foot) wall topped by barbed wire, may have been a lack of adequate surveillance.
"You can have a wall, but a wall can be scaled and, probably, a surveillance system such as CCTV was lacking," said Govind Sisodia, a former senior commander of the National Security Guard counter-terrorism unit.
There have been conflicting reports of how many attackers were involved in the raid, since claimed by the United Jihad Council, an alliance of more than a dozen pro-Pakistan militant groups based in Pakistan-run Kashmir.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars since independence in 1947 over Kashmir, both claiming the region in full but ruling it in part. Tight security along the frontier there has pushed militant attacks south to Punjab.
Analysts and officials said the attackers may have worked in groups, with the carjackers acting together and two others believed to have entered the air base separately, possibly before the main attack. One remains unaccounted for.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted his congratulations on Saturday evening to India's security forces on "successfully neutralizing all the five terrorists in 'Pathankot Operation'".
At the time, the official body count was four.
Singh's tweet was later deleted.
"Why have you fallen behind?"
The terrorists who attacked the IAF base in Pathankot came in groups of four and two and the bigger group was ticked off by their Pakistani handler as to why they have fallen behind in reaching the target when their accomplices had already entered the complex.
Official sources while giving this information today said two gunmen from the group of six Pakistani terrorists might have entered Pathankot air base in Punjab before a state Police SP was kidnapped by them and much before an alert was sounded about their presence in the area.
There is “high probability” that at least two terrorists have entered the Indian Air Force base before Punjab Police SP Salwinder Singh, his jeweller friend Rajesh Verma and Singh’s cook was kidnapped along with an SUV on December 31, the sources said.
Verma, whose throat was slit but survived, told his interrogators that he had heard the four terrorists, who boarded the vehicle after hijacking it, talking to their handlers, believed to be in Pakistan.
The handler apparently ticked off the four terrorists saying why they could not enter the air base as two other terrorists have already reached the target to carry out the attack last Saturday.
The four terrorists told their handlers that they were on their way but could not reach the base as there were several police pickets on the way, according to details of investigations.
There is also possibility of these four terrorists entering the Pathankot air base on the morning of January 1, much before an alarm was sounded in the area to secure all vital installations later in the evening of that day, sources said.
The hijacked vehicle was also found near the air base.
Crucial hours were lost in verifying the Punjab Police SP’s claims that he was kidnapped along with two others by the terrorists.
Sources said that police officers whom the SP had informed about the terrorists initially did not take him seriously because of his “dubious past”.
(With Reuters & IANS)