Security forces continued to battle terrorists holed up in Punjab’s Pathankot air base for a second straight day on Sunday, reportedly killing one militant and engaging at least one more amid fresh gunfire and explosions that triggered criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.
Officials confirmed no damage to military assets but insisted the operation to flush out the heavily-armed terrorists was still on around 30 hours after the gunmen stormed the air base on Saturday, firing indiscriminately.
Casualties on the Indian side rose to seven, with a blast during a mop-up operation killing an officer of the elite National Security Guards (NSG) and three more security personnel succumbing to their injuries from the encounter a day earlier.
“We are pained to know about demise of Lt Col Niranjan of NSG... The nation salutes his sacrifice,” home minister Rajnath Singh said.
Union home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said commandos engaged two more terrorists on Sunday – in addition to the four killed a day before -- contradicting official statements a day before that said all attackers had been gunned down and the operation was in its final stages.
The number of terrorists who launched the audacious pre-dawn strike also rose to at least six as Singh withdrew a tweet that said five terrorists had been killed on Saturday.
“At night, operations slowed down and area was cordoned off. In the morning we realised two more terrorists are there. The operation is at a mature state but confirmation on number of casualties only after recovering bodies,” said Air Marshal Anil Khosla.
“Operation is still on and will continue till we are sure that there are no more intruders at the Air Force station. Seven people have been martyred, one Garud, five DSC jawans and one NSG,” said JS Dhamoon AOC, Pathankot.
A second security personnel was also injured in a separate incident related to the mop-up operation. Besides, three security men involved in Saturday’s operation succumbed to their injuries on Sunday morning. A day ago, a commando of the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s elite special Garud unit and two Defence Security Corps personnel had died in the operation.
The setbacks saw many questioning the government’s handling of the crisis, including the quality of the intelligence and the planning of the response to the attack. Critics asked why it took authorities over 12 hours to probe a terror angle in the snatching of a police official’s car in Punjab and the supposed lax monitoring of the international boundary, located just 30 kilometres from the air base.
The terrorists also supposedly crossed the border from virtually the same point as the extremists responsible for the attack in Gurdaspur in July last year that left 10 people dead.
The airbase, not very far from the Pakistan border, was attacked by a group of militants suspected to be operatives of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based group blamed for the December 2001 attack on Parliament that killed 11 people.
The strike is believed to have been an attempt to undo the recent bonhomie in India-Pakistan ties but both sides gave no signal it would affect proposed talks later this month. The attack also came barely a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic Christmas Day stopover in Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.