The director general of military operations said on Sunday initial reports showed four militants who attacked a strategic army base in north Kashmir’s Uri and killed 17 soldiers were from the Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Lt Gen Ranbir Singh said the equipment carried by the attackers bore Pakistani markings and he had spoken to his counterpart from across the border to convey his “serious concern”. Singh said the Indian Army was prepared to thwart the “adversary’s nefarious designs”, warning of a befitting response to the attack.
“Thirteen to 14 casualties of the 17 killed were primarily because of tents and temporary shelter catching fire,” the DGMO said.
The Sunday attack squeezed the space for an India-Pakistan dialogue, triggering calls for a fierce retaliation against Islamabad, seen to be behind the strike.
Four “fidayeen” - or commando-style gunmen willing to fight to the death - were confirmed killed after sneaking into the base near the Line of Control with Pakistan, the worst single attack on the army in 26 years.
More than 30 soldiers were injured, many of them critically, stoking fears that the death toll will rise.
The strike jeopardised hopes of peace returning quickly to the Valley that has been rocked by two months of violent protests that have killed 86 people and injured thousands.
Sources said the attack was part of a fresh wave of infiltration by militants who the government blames for instigating Kashmiris and stirring unrest.
“We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
The dawn raid surprised soldiers in their sleep as attackers set fire to a building. The blaze killed 12 soldiers and the rest died in the gunfight, sources added.
Television footage showed helicopters flying to evacuate the injured as smoke billowed from the base. The extremists sneaked into the camp at 5.30am and used guns and grenades to target soldiers, triggering a fierce gun battle that raged on for hours.
The camp is inhabited by soldiers who mostly guard the LoC. The garrison can be approached from three sides, one of which is just six kilometers away from the de-facto border with Pakistan. Police sources said there were intelligence inputs regarding a possible attack.
Army sources said one battalion was being moved after their tour of duty and another was taking over – with many soldiers staying in transit tents that caught fire in the initial stage of the encounter.
A militant raid in December 2014, also near Uri, had killed eight soldiers and three policemen. In February, the army lost three soldiers in the deadliest suicide bomber attack in Srinagar in many years.
The attack is likely to further roil Kashmir that army sources say has seen scores of infiltration attempts since protests broke out against insurgent leader Burhan Wani’s killing in July.
Home minister Rajnath Singh hit out at Pakistan, calling it a terror state that needed to be “identified and isolated”.
“I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups,” he tweeted.
Many other army veterans demanded counter-terror operations in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The base housed 12,000 troops stationed in temporary tents and shelters that caught fire in the encounter and caused the high number of casualties, a statement released from the army’s northern command headquarters of Udhampur said.