NEW DELHI —
Indian forces searched an airbase in the northern Punjab state Tuesday for any possible holdouts from a Saturday attack by heavily armed gunmen that killed seven security personnel.
Security officials have said the search at the strategic base in Pathankot town near the Pakistani border will continue until they are sure the area is secure. Indian forces have killed five attackers, the last on Monday, and it is not clear if any others remain.
“The entire operation will continue till all the personnel, assets, structures are physically combed, so it is likely to take a long time, but we would like to assure everyone that," Major General Dushyant Singh, a top officer of the National Security Guards, said Monday.
Officials pointed out that besides strategic assets, the airbase houses many families and schools.
“It is like a mini city”, said Lt. General J.S. Dhamoon.
An alliance of more than a dozen militant groups called the United Jihad Council, based in Pakistani Kashmir, has claimed responsibility for the attack. The group, which is fighting to end Indian rule in Kashmir, said it wanted to show India that no military installation was out of the reach of militants and India should allow Kashmiris to decide their political future.
The claim of responsibility came in a statement issued to a Srinagar-based news agency.
Reports in India have suggested that the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad group carried out the attack.
Officials stressed that all the installations at the base, which houses fighter jets and assault helicopters, are safe. “I would like to assure everybody that all these air assets have been secured and are safe, there has been no damage to anyone of them,” Brigadier Anupinder Belvi told reporters.
Although officials are trying to stress that damage at the airbase was minimized, questions are being raised over how the gunmen managed to enter the military facility despite intelligence alerts about a possible terror attack. “There are serious holes in the entire security structure”, said Sukh Deo Muni at New Delhi’s Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. “How should this happen after all the alerts that were given?”
Even as operations were continuing, India witnessed a second militant attack when four unidentified gunmen tried to storm its consulate in the Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi held a meeting Monday to review both the attacks, which took place about a week after he visited Lahore in an effort to boost a flagging peace process with the rival nation.
Questions are now being raised in New Delhi on how the government will react and whether the attacks will impact talks scheduled to be held between the foreign secretaries of the two countries in Islamabad later this month.
Pakistan on Monday again condemned the airbase attack in India and says it is "working on the leads provided by" New Delhi to help investigate the deadly assault in line with Islamabad's commitment to effectively counter and eradicate terrorism.
A foreign ministry statement says that "living in the same region and with a common history, the two countries should remain committed to a sustained dialogue process." It added that the challenge of terrorism calls for strengthening our resolve to cooperative approach.
Analyst S.D. Muni said there is pressure from both within the ruling party, opposition parties and civil society to cancel the bilateral dialogue, but New Delhi’s options are limited. “I don’t think government has many better options, because canceling the talks again puts the whole thing into square one. What do you? If you don’t talk, this is where you come to a dead end of diplomacy,” said Muni.
Ayaz Gul contributed to this report from Islamabad, Chris Hannas contributed from Washington.