Indian security forces killed five terrorists who launched a pre-dawn attack Saturday on a strategic Air Force base in Punjab’s Pathankot district, setting off a fierce 10-hour gunfight that also left three security personnel dead and about a dozen others injured.
The attack on the air base, which is home to a large fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-25 fighter planes, was seen as an attempt to undo recent progress in India’s relationship with Pakistan. It came barely a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Lahore to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in a sign of possible thawing of relations between the two countries.
The slain security personnel included two from the Defence Security Corps including Commonwealth gold medallist shooter Fateh Singh besides an airman whose identity was not given.
“Enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress, such elements attacked in Pathankot but our security forces did not let them succeed,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Mysuru.
Gunshots rocked the facility around 3:30am Saturday as a group of at least five men in army-style clothing -- believed to be operatives of Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed -- launched the daring operation less than 24 hours after an alert was sounded in the state over the assault of a top cop of Gurdaspur, superintendent of police Salwinder Singh, by suspected Pakistani terrorists.
Elite NSG Commandoes, army personnel and a SWAT team of Punjab Police were rushed to the area following the assault on Singh and interceptions of mobile phone calls made by the terrorists to their Pakistan-based handlers.
“From the moment terrorists’ presence was confirmed on Friday, Punjab police and central security agencies worked in tandem and rapidly mobilised all resources in real time. That’s what accounted for the success of the operation,” said Suresh Arora, Punjab director general of police.
Sources said 168 NSG commandos led by major general Dushyant Singh were flown in from Delhi on Friday night.
Though the terrorists managed to enter the base, they were unable to penetrate the area where fighter aircraft, helicopters and other military equipment are kept, said IAF spokeswoman Rochelle D’Silva.
Watch: Security forces launch operation after Pathankot attack
The entire area had turned into a virtual war zone as gun shots rang continuously while helicopter gunships provided air cover, in an operation that was closely monitored and supervised by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
Doval also attended a meeting later in the day with defence minister Manohar Parrikar who cut short his stay in Goa and returned to Delhi following the attack. The meeting was also attended by the three Service chiefs.
Although police said the gun battle ended by 8am, shots and loud explosions could be heard from inside the base until noon. At least one helicopter could be seen firing at an area inside the facility.
While bodies of four attackers were recovered from the scene, the body of another terrorist was recovered in the evening outside the base where security forces had launched a massive search operation.
Though there were conflicting reports about the presence of six terrorists, home minister Rajnath Singh said five have been killed till search operations were called off for the day.
A defence source said the terrorists were from JeM, a group blamed for the December 2001 attack on Parliament that killed 11 people, and 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.
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.
(With HTC inputs from Delhi)