India says air force base secured after deadly siege

Pre-dawn attack on defence facility in Punjab state endangers recent progress in India-Pakistan peace process.

A pre-dawn raid on an Indian air base in the northwestern state of Punjab has ended after a 15-hour gun battle that left all five attackers and at least seven soldiers dead, according to police and security forces.

Saturday’s attack, 50km from the border with Pakistan, came just a week after Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, made an unannounced Pakistan visit to meet his counterpart in a bid to revive bilateral talks that had previously been derailed by armed attacks.

Rajnath Singh, home minister, confirmed that all five attackers were killed in Pathankot.

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The defence ministry said there had been intelligence reports about a possible 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.

Intermittent gunfire had continued into the day and helicopters flew as an operations continued to comb the base.

Suresh Arora, Punjab’s police chief, said the attackers had earlier hijacked a police officer’s car and driven it to the heavily guarded base.

Rochelle D’Silva, Indian Air Force spokesperson, said the men entered the living quarters of the base, but were not able to penetrate the area that houses fighter helicopters and other equipment.

The airbase was cordoned off and a heavy contingent of police deployed to the area, with elite paramilitary force of the National Security Guard (NSG) and the Guard Commando Force called in. 

A senior Indian police officer said that a red alert was issued across Punjab in the wake of the incident.

No responsibility claim

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but India’s junior home minister hinted at involvement of armed groups based in Pakistan.

“We have credible information that this attack was sponsored by some elements across the border,” Kiren Rijiju, the minister, said in New Delhi.

Rajnath Singh, India’s home minister, said the country wanted peace with Pakistan but that any “terrorist attack” would get “a befitting response”.

Pakistan condemned the attack and said it wanted to build on the goodwill created by the recent high-level contacts.

“Pakistan remains committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism,” Qazi Khalilullah, foreign ministry spokesman, said in a series of tweets.

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Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent social scientist in Pakistan, says it is too early to point fingers as nothing has been proven as yet.

“It’s a bit tricky and Pakistan’s involvement has not been proven yet,” Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc, told Al Jazeera from Islamabad.

“The environment has completely changed after Mumbai [the 2011 attacks]. There are military outfits operating from Pakistan and they keep themselves very vocal on social media, so there’s a temptation to interpret the attacks in a certain way.”

Uday Bhaskar, head of the New Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies, said there was a fair amount of speculation and conjecture about the identity of the attackers.

“As an analyst I would say the probability that perpetrators are linked to one of the better known terror groups that have targeted India over the last decade is fairly high,” Bhaskar told Al Jazeera.

“I think the motive seems to disrupt the current traction as far as India-Pakistan bilateral relations are concerned.

“We have had similar pattern in the past where those groups and constituencies that are against any improvement in bilateral relations play the terror card. I see it as part of this pattern. How Pakistan would respond would be an indicator about the next course of events in bilateral ties.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies