NEW DELHI —
Ten people were killed at an air force base in India's northern Punjab state in a terror attack that is being seen as an effort to derail recent peace efforts between India and Pakistan.
Officials said four gunmen and six security personnel were killed when gunmen dressed in army uniforms mounted an attack early Saturday at the air base in Pathankot town, about 50 kilometers from India’s border with Pakistan and about 430 kilometers north of New Delhi.
Indian forces backed by tanks and helicopters regained control of the compound after a 15-hour battle.
The attackers used an Indian police officer's car, which was apparently hijacked the previous evening, to infiltrate the air force facility.
Additional forces were rushed in, elite commandos searched the base, and helicopters made a reconnaissance of the town amid concern that some of the attackers may have escaped. Sporadic gunfire could be heard through the afternoon.
Security has been stepped up at defense bases and other areas in the country.
Officials said they are still trying to identify the attackers. However, some Indian security officials say they believe the attackers are members of Jaish-e-Mohammed (The Army of Mohammed), a militant group based in Pakistan that wants independence for Indian-ruled Kashmir.
Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in carefully worded televised remarks: "Pakistan is our neighbor and we want peace, not just with Pakistan but with all our neighboring nations. We also want peace, but if terrorists carry out attacks on Indian soil we will give them a befitting reply."
“Whoever is finally identified, it will be the same Pakistan-based terror formations and these have long experience of attacking military and police establishments," said Ajay Sahni, the head of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi.
Last year, at least seven people, including police officers, were killed in an attack on a border town in Punjab. India said the gunmen involved in that incident were militants who had infiltrated from Pakistan.
Modi, Sharif meet
The latest attack comes just a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a historic, unannounced visit to Pakistan to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif -- the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade.
The visit was seen as an effort to revive a flagging peace process.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training insurgents fighting for Kashmir's independence from India and its merger with Pakistan. Islamabad denies the charge.
Analysts and officials say peace moves by the political leadership of the two countries in the past have often been followed by an escalation in terror strikes.
Nalin Kohli, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, suggested India will persevere with peace efforts.
“Every time there is a movement toward normalization of relationship with Pakistan, these things automatically happen, because these are forces that don’t want peace between India and Pakistan and also in the region," Kohli said. "However, as far as India is concerned, we are constantly going to do our best to deal with that situation and ensure that these forces are defeated.”
It is the second terror strike in Punjab in the past six months – in July, gunmen stormed a police station close to the border town of Gurdaspur, killing at least seven people, including police officers. India blamed that attack on militants who had infiltrated from Pakistan.
Punjab, along with the disputed region of Kashmir, shares a border with Pakistan.