Two teams of terrorists attacked the Pathankot air base on Saturday, and they had – in all likelihood – reached there in different vehicles, security sources told HT.
“The two terrorists who remained hidden at the air base and exchanged fire with security personnel on Sunday were part of another team of terrorists that had entered the vast air base area. We also suspect that they might have reached there in another vehicle,” said a senior security official on the condition of anonymity.
Sources said a lot could be deduced from the experience of Punjab superintendent of police Salwinder Singh and his jeweller friend, who were overpowered by four heavily armed persons in military uniforms – who then used his vehicle to travel nearly 500 to 1,000 metres in the direction of the air base. “This goes to confirm that there was at least one group of four terrorists that entered the air base area on the intervening night of Thursday and Friday, when they snatched Salwinder Singh’s vehicle. The calls made from the mobile phone snatched from Salwinder and his friend show they didn’t move from one area,” said another security official.
Counter-terror sources said there were intercepts that referred to a group of six terrorists infiltrating into India to carry out the attack. The security establishment is now looking for any other vehicle that might have been hijacked from the area, and used by the second group to reach the Pathankot air base.
When asked about the number of militants who may have jointly attacked the air base, a senior police officer said that it could be “as high as eight or ten”. And as a second vehicle has not been recovered despite the Punjab police combing the entire periphery of the air base, investigation officers are almost certain of the involvement of a local module of terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) that may have dropped the other team of terrorists at the spot.
Sources said all the phone calls made by the terrorists to Pakistan were on numbers identified as that of JeM by the security establishment for a long time now.
The police are also scrutinising footage acquired from the toll plaza on the Gurdaspur-Pathankot highway – besides various police and BSF checkpoints on the Bamiyal-Pathankot road – for clues.
Police will also go into the details of the calls made to Ikagar Singh – a taxi driver from Bhagowal village who was killed by the terrorists. Initial reports have suggested that he was called from a Pakistan number, and “hired” to transport someone to a hospital. But security sources are yet to verify the timing of the call, to check if it was made when the militants were with the driver or earlier.
Security sources are looking at the timing of the call made on the phone to see if it was made when the terrorists were with him or before that.
However, as soon as Singh discovered the identity of his passengers – who were apparently picked up at the Kathlana T-point on the Bamiyal-Pathankot road – he rammed his vehicle into a rock near Kathlour bridge over the Ravi and tried to escape. Singh was, however, killed by the militants.
Singh’s family claimed that he was repairing a car tyre when he was overpowered and forced to drive ahead by the terrorists, who were hiding near the T-point.
Meanwhile, sources said that combing the thick forested areas within the air base is turning out to be a herculean task. There are few buildings in the area, other than a deserted workshop and some empty hangars. “The combing operations continued through the night, but – considering that there are militants around – we have to be very cautious to ensure that our men are not hunted down,” a top police officer said.
The officer said that the firing was confined to the same general area where the other four terrorists were killed. “The good news is – the time lapse between the firing is increasing, which means they are running short of ammunition. It is only a matter of time before we win the battle,” he added.
Security agencies halted the combing operation late in the night to prevent chances of their personnel incurring further casualties, stating that it would be resumed at first light. They said the operation would be deemed complete only after the bodies of the terrorists are recovered.