At least 2 gunmen holed up in building at Indian air force base on third day of standoff
PATHANKOT, India – At least two gunmen were holed up in a two-story building on an Indian air force base near the Pakistan border and exchanging gunfire with troops Monday, more than two days after they and several others attacked the heavily fortified compound, officials said.
Seven troops and four gunmen have been killed so far in fighting that started after several suspected militants infiltrated the Pathankot air force base before dawn Saturday.
Defence officials have said that authorities had been alerted about a potential attack in the area on Friday, and that aerial surveillance at the base spotted the gunmen as they entered the compound, leading to criticism of the handling of the situation.
The army said in a statement Monday that the building where the remaining gunmen were firing from is part of the living quarters on the base.
Maj. Gen. Dushyant Singh, from India’s elite National Security Guard, told reporters in Pathankot that it will take a “long time” to declare the base completely secure because of its size and geography.
The sprawling Pathankot air force base is spread over more than 2,000 acres, including some forested sections with very tall grass. The commanding officer of the base, Lt. Col. J.S. Dhamoon, described it as a “mini-city” that includes homes for families and a school for the children of the personnel stationed there.
Officials have said that there have been no civilian casualties and that 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.
The fact that seven Indian troops inside a military base were killed despite intelligence alerts has angered many in India.
“The biggest problem is the multiplicity of command and control. Nobody knows who is really in charge,” said Rahul Bedi, an analyst for Jane’s Information Group.
The Pathankot base and the northern state of Punjab, where it is located, has “probably the highest concentration of military personnel in India because it’s so close to the border with Pakistan,” Bedi said.
“It’s a huge embarrassment,” he said. “It’s a major goof-up for everybody.”
Since Saturday morning, the base has been swarming with air force commandos, army soldiers, National Security Guard troops and local police. Officials, however, have refused to say how many security personnel in all were involved in the fighting and operations to secure the base.
There has also been no clear source of information on the attack for the media. Home Minister Rajnath Singh even tweeted Saturday night to congratulate the troops for successfully killing all of the gunmen.
The air force base is on the highway that connects India’s insurgency-plagued Jammu and Kashmir state with the rest of the country. It is also very close to India’s border with Pakistan.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but is claimed in its entirety by both. Rebels in India’s portion of Kashmir have been fighting since 1989 for independence or merger with Pakistan.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies, and the attack is being viewed as a possible attempt to unravel recent progress in the relationship between the two nations.
Police said they do not know if the gunmen came from the Indian portion of Kashmir, where rebels routinely stage attacks, or from Pakistan.
The violence follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Dec. 25 visit to Pakistan, where he met his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif – a trip that marked a significant thaw in the mostly tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
The two also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.
Ahead of Modi’s visit to Pakistan, the national security advisers of both countries met in Thailand. The foreign secretaries of both nations are to meet in Islamabad later this month.
The responses to the attacks from both countries have been muted so far, with neither New Delhi nor Islamabad giving any indication that the planned talks are under any threat.
All political parties in India have condemned the attack, but there were no demands that the government call off the talks with Pakistan. In the past, when it was in opposition, Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was a vocal critic of engagement with Pakistan.
Naqvi reported from New Delhi.