Indian forces still fighting gunmen at airforce base

At least two militants believed to be at large on vast facility adjoining Pakistani border

Seven Indian security personnel were  killed in an attack by suspected Islamist militants on  Pathankot airforce base, which began early yesterday. Four militants were also killed. Photograph: Nunarinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

Seven Indian security personnel were killed in an attack by suspected Islamist militants on Pathankot airforce base, which began early yesterday. Four militants were also killed. Photograph: Nunarinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

 

Indian security forces were engaged in a firefight this evening with armed gunmen at an airforce base in northern Punjab state, adjoining the Pakistani border, more than 36 hours after the complex came under attack.

Confusion prevailed over whether two or more militants were still hiding on the vast Indian airforce base at Pathnkot, 476km north of New Delhi, after special forces personnel shot dead four gunmen yesterday evening.

“The area [airforce base] cannot be declared fully sanitised,” air marshal Anil Khosla told reporters in New Delhi this evening.

Other senior officials said they expected the surviving gunmen, discovered on the airforce base shortly after noon today, to be “neutralised soon”.

By late evening there was no official statement that this had been achieved, although officials said two gunmen had been “cornered” by special forces personnel in a wooded area.

The militant attack on the base, which began before dawn yesterday, left seven Indian security personnel dead, including an officer of the rank of lieutenant colonel. Lt Col Niranjan was killed while defusing a grenade as part of the follow-on search operation that continued on the base through last night.

Four other national security guard personnel were also injured in the grenade blast, officials said.

The firefight with the gunmen, suspected of belonging to the Pakistani Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad) Islamist group, lasted some 20 hours on the strategically located airforce base, which houses fighter aircraft and attack helicopters.

The 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 reopen peace talks between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Talks had been stalled over numerous contentious issues, particularly the November 2008 attack by 10 Pakistani gunmen on two luxury hotels and a Jewish centre in Mumbai, in which over 166 people died.

India claims the Mumbai attackers from the Islamist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT or Army of the Pure) group – based near the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore – were trained and sent by that country’s inter service intelligence directorate (Isid), a claim Islamabad denies.

India also wants LeT leaders responsible for planning the Mumbai attack prosecuted, a demand that has been thwarted by Islamabad.

The response to the weekend airforce base attack, however, has been muted from both governments.

Senior Indian leaders have been circumspect in apportioning blame ahead of bilateral foreign secretary-level talks, scheduled for January 15th in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry, for its part, condemned the attack and its foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz declared in a weekend radio interview that Islamabad wanted better relations with India.

For decades India has accused Pakistan’s Isid of arming and training fighters to fuel the insurgency in northern Jammu and Kashmir province, which is divided between the neighbours but claimed in entirety by both.

Pakistan denies these allegations, claiming it provides Kashmiri separatists only moral and political support for their cause of an independent Muslim homeland.

The two sides have fought two of their three wars since independence from colonial rule in 1947 over Kashmir.