Five terrorists and three security men including one Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel were killed in an attack on an air force base in Punjab’s Pathankot district early on Saturday morning, setting alarm bells ringing across the country.
Gunshots rocked the facility around 3:30am on the second day of a new year as a group of at least five men in army-style clothing - believed to be operatives of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group - launched the daring operation less than 24 hours after an alert was sounded in the state over the assault of a top police officer by suspected Pakistani terrorists.
Even though police said the gun battle ended by 8am in which four terrorists were killed, shots and loud explosions were heard from inside the base around 11am.
At least one helicopter could be seen firing at an area inside the facility.
One more terrorist was neutralised by security forces later in the day.
A defence source said the terrorists from JeM, a group blamed for the December 2001 attack on Parliament that killed 11 people, had probably infiltrated about three days ago. Pathankot — located at the tri-junction of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh — is on a highway that connects insurgency-hit J-K with the rest of the country.
A team of 50 commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG) led the fight against the militants at the air force base, a top security official said.
The NSG commandos were flown to Pathankot on Friday night in view of a security threat after the abduction and thrashing of Gurdaspur SP (headquarters) Salwinder Singh by terrorists, who dodged security forces and escaped.
The NSG commandos were rushed to the air force base and an army cantonment at Mamoon after their arrival in Pathankot, and a major search operation was kick-started. The terrorists launched the assault soon after a combing operation in the area between the air base installation and Chakki river, police said.
As police cordoned off the area that resembled a war zone, army and air force personnel swung into action alongside the NSG forces that retaliated strongly, a source told HT in the wake of the attack reminiscent of the Gurdaspur strike last year.
In July, heavily armed men in army fatigues sprayed bullets on a moving bus and stormed Dinanagar police station in Gurdaspur district bordering Pakistan, killing six people and injuring eight.
Watch: Security forces launch operation after Pathankot attack
DIG (border) Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh said helicopters were dispatched for assistance in the Pathankot operation. The terrorists were contained in a non-operational area of the air force base. A source said that the co-ordinated counter operation was supervised by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
The attack came close on the heels of an upswing in India-Pakistan ties after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise trip to Lahore last month and held talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.
“Pakistan is our neighbour and we want peace, but any terrorist attack on India will get a befitting response,” home minister Rajnath Singh said.
Junior home minister Kiren Rijiju said: “We have credible information about this attack being sponsored by some elements across the border.”
Punjab was put on maximum alert while security measures were also tightened in neighbouring Haryana, the common capital of the two states - Chandigarh, and national capital Delhi.
The Pathankot IAF facility, which is 20km (aerial distance) from the India-Pakistan border, is the base of MiG-21 fighter planes and Mi-25 attack helicopters of the air force. Authorities said helicopters and other equipment at the base are safe.