India is evaluating whether to have peace talks with nuclear rival Pakistan, scheduled for mid-January, in light of the attack on one of its air-force bases in northern Punjab state over the weekend.
Official sources said a final decision on talks between the countries’ foreign secretaries in Islamabad on January 15th would be taken after the security forces had “sanitised” the Pathankot air base, near the Pakistan border, of all militants.
However, former Indian envoys to Pakistan and ex-foreign secretaries, who held consultations with India's external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj on Sunday, collectively advised her that talks with Islamabad should progress despite the Pathankot attack.
“The overall sense from the meeting was that engagement with Islamabad must continue as there is no option other than talks between the two sides,” a diplomat at the meeting said.
The two sides, he added, must also draw up a contingency plans to deal with such emergencies as the ongoing one at Pathankot.
The Indian security forces, meanwhile, continued combing the vast Pathankot airbase, 476km north of New Delhi, three days after armed gunmen stormed it, killing seven military personnel and wounding 22.
Maj Gen Dushyant Singh of the National Security Guard, the counter-terrorism force that is leading the assault against the militants, told reporters on Monday/yesterday that a fifth militant had been killed.
Operations to secure the area were continuing and were likely to take a long time, he said.
Four militants involved in Saturday’s attack on the base were killed on Saturday, but others were still engaged in a firefight with the security forces.
Confusion remains about how many gunmen were hiding in the tall grass surrounding the airbase, spread over some 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres).
Sporadic gunfire could be heard from inside the airbase, interspersed with grenade explosions, security officials said, but they seemed unsure of the situation inside, due to the multiplicity of forces involved.
Indian security agencies believe the gunmen belong to the Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad) Islamist group, responsible for many such strikes on military and civilian targets across India since its establishment in 2000.
The group, believed to be a “surrogate” of Pakistan’s military Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (Isid), was also involved in the December 2001 strike on India’s parliament in New Delhi in which 14 people, including five terrorists, died.
India blamed Isid for the parliament attack and deployed its army to its border with Pakistan, bringing the nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war. Both armies withdrew after 10 months of battle-readiness along their frontiers.
The Pathankot attack followed Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's surprise Christmas Day visit to Pakistan, where he met his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in an effort to re-open peace talks between the neighbours.
Security officials in Delhi said the Pathankot attack coincided with a militant strike on the Indian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif that was successfully thwarted by the Afghan Army’s Special Forces.
India and Afghanistan signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement in late 2012 and Delhi recently sent four Mi-25 attack helicopters to Kabul.
India also provides annual instruction to hundreds of Afghan military officers and soldiers at several of its defence training institutions.