Security personnel were searching Punjab’s Pathankot air force base on Monday after killing a fifth attacker in a counter-terror offensive that began last week, while India announced it would decide on foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan slated for January 15 only after the operation is over.
Security sources told HT that a sixth terrorist too had likely been killed but an announcement would only come later as his badly disfigured body was yet to be identified.
“The search and combing operation is still on. All civilians in the airbase are secure,” said Major General Dushyant Singh, inspector general (operations) of the National Security Guards (NSG).
As the government mulled its options on the proposed talks with Pakistan, the United Jehad Council, a conglomerate of militant outfits, claimed that the attack was carried out by Kashmiri militants. Government sources, however, believe it is a diversionary tactic and the strategy displayed by the Pathankot attackers indicates they were trained by professional soldiers.
“The terrorists used all the military tactics like conserving firepower, attacking at 3am when the level of alertness is at its lowest and going quiet to give the impression that all the attackers had died,” said an official.
The Prime Minister chaired a high-level meeting in the Capital to discuss the Pathankot counter-terror operation during which seven Indian soldiers died and an attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar and finance minister Arun Jaitley attended the meeting. Jaitley said the attack in Pathankot was a fidayeen strike aimed at causing loss to strategic assets.
“I think let the operations get over and it is only then government takes a view on such matters (the talks),” the finance minister told reporters.
Asked why it was taking so long to neutralise the terrorists, Major General Dushyant Singh told reporters that the operation would not end until all assets and the entire airbase had been secured. He did not respond to questions about a sixth terrorist holed up in the area.
There was little clarity on how many terrorists remained within the airbase, while the government asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the attack. Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was blamed for the December 2001 attack on Parliament, is suspected to be behind the siege.
A friend of superintendent of police Salwinder Singh whose car was snatched by the attackers ahead of the terror strike told investigators that the four gunmen who overpowered them were receiving instructions to hurry up as “the other group” had already reached the intended place.
Reports earlier on Monday indicated that at least two terrorists were hiding in a building that housed families of air force personnel and that the gunmen had arrived in two separate groups.
There were unconfirmed reports in the afternoon that the two-storey building in which the terrorists were holed up had been razed.
Security analysts raised questions about the operation that has lasted longer than the 26/11 Mumbai attacks when the NSG was rushed to the financial capital to secure multiple targets.
The assault that began early on Saturday morning dragged on as security forces struggled to contain the heavily armed attackers at the sprawling station. The Pathankot airbase is spread over more than 2,000 acres, including forests and tall grass.
The commanding officer of the base, Air Commodore JS Dhamoon, described it as a “mini-city” that includes homes for families and a school for children of the personnel stationed there.
Officials said there have been no civilian casualties and no aircraft or military equipment has been damaged in the fighting. The base houses a fleet of India’s Russian-origin MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, along with other military hardware.
(With HTC in New Delhi)