Heavily-armed Pakistani terrorists today carried out a pre-dawn strike at the Air Force base in Punjab's Pathankot, triggering a fierce gunbattle in which three securitymen and five infiltrators were killed, days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's surprise stopover in Lahore.
With the obvious intention of destroying fighter jets and attack helicopters housed there, up to six terrorists in army fatigues attempted to storm the base which is barely 35 kms from the international border with Pakistan but failed to go beyond the outer periphery.
Indian intelligence sources say the terrorists came from Pakistan and Jaish e Mohammed (JeM) links cannot be ruled out. What is clear is that the Pathankot strike is an attempt to undo recent progress made in relations between archrivals India and Pakistan, coming just a week after the first visit to Pakistan in 12 years by an Indian prime minister. Both sides played it carefully while putting out official reactions.
In Islamabad, the Pakistan Foreign Office said in a statement: “Pakistan condemns the terrorist incident in Pathankot, India, today, in which many precious lives have been lost. We extend heartfelt condolences to the government and people of India and the bereaved families and wish the wounded speedy and full recovery. Building on the goodwill created during the recent high-level contacts between the two countries, Pakistan remains committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region.”
Former International rifle shooter Subehdar Major (Retd) Fateh Singh, who won a gold and silver for India at 1st Commonwealth Shooting Championship in the capital back in 1995, today was martyred while fighting in Pathankot. Singh was 51 years old and was a part of the Defence Security Core (DSC). He was posted with the Dogra regiment.
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The attack at the Pathankot air force base began a couple of hours before dawn, and by late morning it appeared that the violence had ended with the killing of the gunmen by Indian forces. But two hours later, more gunfire erupted and an air force helicopter was seen firing at an area of the base, a major installation located about 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of New Delhi.
Air force spokeswoman Rochelle D'Silva said Saturday night that troops were combing the entire base to fully secure it. She said that the combing operation was expected to continue through the night, and that the full number of casualties would be clear once the base was completely secured.
The defense ministry said there had been intelligence reports about a likely terror attack on military installations in Pathankot, and that the air force had been prepared to thwart any attackers.
"Due to the effective preparation and coordinated efforts by all the security agencies a group of terrorists were detected by the aerial surveillance platforms as soon as they entered the Air Force Station at Pathankot," the ministry said in a statement.
Attack began at 3 a.m. near residential quarters
The attack began at around 3 a.m., when a group of gunmen entered the section of the base where the living quarters are located, the defense ministry said. The attackers, however, were unable to penetrate the area where fighter helicopters and other military equipment are kept, it said.
Police said they suspected the gunmen were militants, and were investigating whether they had come from the Indian portion of Kashmir or from Pakistan. The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but is claimed in its entirety by both.
Rebels routinely stage attacks in Indian-held Kashmir, where they've been fighting since 1989 for an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training Kashmir's insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies, and the attack was viewed by many in India as an attempt to unravel recent progress in the country's relationship with its archrival.
Violence comes a week after Modi-Sharif hug
The violence came just a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Pakistan to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. The visit was seen as a potential sign of thawing relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. The two leaders also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.
Ahead of Modi's visit to Pakistan, the national security advisers of both countries had met in Thailand. The foreign secretaries of both nations are scheduled to meet in Islamabad later this month.
In the past, the contentious issue of Kashmir has halted talks between the rivals.
"These kinds of attacks are nothing new and have generally been the outcome of the dispute of India and Pakistan over Kashmir," said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist at Central University in Indian Kashmir's capital, Srinagar.
Baba said that there were elements in both countries that would like to see the peace process fizzle out, and that all sides must "exhibit political maturity and sagacity to defeat the vested interests."
Modi, at a speech in the southern city of Mysore, said: "I congratulate the nation's security forces for turning the intentions of our country's enemies into dust. They didn't let them succeed. And I salute the martyrdom of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives."
Pathankot, in Punjab state, is on the highway that connects India's insurgency-wracked Jammu and Kashmir state with the rest of the country. It's also very close to India's border with Pakistan.
Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned the attack. "Building on the goodwill created during the recent high level contacts between the two countries, Pakistan remains committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism afflicting our region," it said in a statement.
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh told reporters that India wants peace with Pakistan, but "if there is any kind of terror attack on India, we will give it a fitting reply."
India's defense minister, national security adviser and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force met Saturday to discuss the situation.
In July, gunmen staged a similar attack at a police station and a moving bus near Gurdaspur, a border town in India's Punjab state. The three attackers then killed four policemen and three civilians before being shot dead by security forces.
ISI may have joined hands with JeM
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency has reportedly joined hands with banned Islamic militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to "revive" the latter's base, according to intelligence sources.
The tie-up is to carry out terrorist attacks across India, sources told IANS on condition of anonymity.
Over the last eight months, intelligence officials had intercepted several Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls of cross border discussion between ISI agents and their contacts in terror modules in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
Sources said the Saturday fidayeen attack at the frontline Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Pathankot in northern Punjab could have been carried out JeM militants who were being backed by ISI for several months.
"We are not very sure if the intercepted calls were to JeM militants, but the possibility is high," the sources said.
"After LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) and SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), the ISI is now reported to be backing JeM for its revival in Kashmir and other Indian cities. ISI's motive is to establish large number of terror outfit modules of different militant groups in several parts of the country," the official said.
Maulana Masood Azhar formed Jaish-e-Mohammed in March 2000, shortly after his release from prison in December 1999, in exchange for passengers of the hijacked Indian Airlines flight IC 814 which was taken to Kandahar, in Afghanistan.
Sources said the group, in coordination with LeT, was implicated in the 2001 attack on Indian Parliament in New Delhi. In December 2002, four JeM members were caught by Indian authorities and put on trial. All four were found guilty. One of the accused, Afzal Guru, was sentenced to death for his role in the attack.
The group was formed after a split within Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), another militant group. A majority of HUM members joined JeM.
IANS in its December 30 report last year had detailed LeT plans on a new year attack which included Punjab as a prime target. The attack, it was said, would be carried out to avenge the death of Abu Qasim, a senior commander of LeT who was killed in an encounter with security forces. Qasim had carried out an attack on a BSF convoy in August in Udhampur, Punjab.
Intelligence officials had told the agency that the alert was based on the busting of a pan-Indian ISI-backed spying ring unearthed by Delhi Police's Crime Branch wing in November-December last year.
Six ISI moles including a serving leading aircraftsman (LAC) Ranjith KK, a library assistant Kafaitullah Khan, a Border Security Force (BSF) head constable Abdul Rasheed, a retired Indian Army havildar Munawwar Ahmad Mir, Rifleman Farid Khan of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry and a government teacher Sabar were arrested during the Delhi Police operation.
Ranjith was sent for police remand while the other five alleged ISI moles are already in 14-day judicial custody.
Sources said that Ranjith is being questioned by the intelligence agencies and Delhi Police sleuths over the Pathankot terror attack. At least five terrorists were killed by commandos following the attack, police said.
Ranjith, who was sacked from the IAF after his link with ISI was established, was later arrested from Bathinda Air Force Station in Punjab on December 28.
He had allegedly shared information on some recent IAF exercises, movement of aircraft and deployment of various air force units with a woman, who spoke with a British accent, during a VoIP call that was intercepted by military intelligence and IAF's liaisonig unit.
"Ranjith was fooled by a fictitious Facebook account in the name of Damini McNaught who pretended to work as an executive with a British magazine that wanted some Indian Air Force information for its next issue," Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Ravindra Yadav had said earlier.
Intelligence officials are also in touch with the Kolkata special task force (STF), which has also arrested some alleged ISI operatives from the city since November 14. The task force had arrested Akhtar Khan, his brother Zafar Khan, Irshad Ansari, Asfaq Ansari and Mohammad Jahangir for providing secret information to ISI, the sources said.