India works to disarm grenades, clear buildings on third day of air base operation
PATHANKOT, INDIA/NEW – Indian security forces were working on Monday to defuse grenades and comb the grounds of a vast air base near the border with Pakistan, two days after a militant attack killed seven military personnel and wounded 22.
The attack on the Pathankot air force base in Punjab, a rare targeting of an Indian military installation outside the disputed northern region of Kashmir, threatens to undermine a tentative thaw in relations with Pakistan.
Indian security forces have killed four militants involved in the attack, but gunfire could still be heard at the base on the third day of operations to secure the area, and it was unclear how many militants remained at large, if any.
“Operations to eliminate two more terrorists, possibly, are in the final stages,” Maj. Gen. Dushyant Singh, of India’s counter-terrorism force, the National Security Guard, told a joint security news briefing at the air base.
“It is likely to take a long time,” he added.
Indian security forces were still trying to clear militants holed up in a building that served as living quarters for air force personnel, army Brig. Anupinder Bevli told the briefing.
Air assets at the base, including aircraft and helicopters, were secure, and there had been no collateral damage or civilian casualties, he added.
Officials have given conflicting accounts on whether the attackers were still active on the base since Home Minister Rajnath Singh declared on Saturday evening that they had been “neutralized”.
The reluctance of officials to declare the mission complete appeared to reflect an abundance of caution until all the attackers’ bodies had been accounted for. The sound of continuing gunfire from the base added confusion to the picture.
Earlier on Monday, a senior federal government official had said two militants hiding in the administrative block of the base had been killed on Sunday, but authorities had yet to recover the bodies.
“A total of six terrorists have been killed, but every inch of the air base has to be secured before we call off the operation,” said the official in New Delhi, who requested anonymity.
Thousands of police were scanning hotels, markets and forested areas in the city of Pathankot around the base, to ensure no more militants were hiding there, said police official Manoj Kumar.
“Our biggest concern is to protect public spaces,” Kumar said. “The militants who entered the air base must have a local network coordinating with them.”
Manish Mehta, an Indian army spokesman, said the military was working at a “very fast pace” to defuse live hand grenades and gather the remains of the dead militants.
“The air base is large and we have been working all night to ensure that the base is totally in our control,” Mehta said.
Military trucks were seen entering and leaving the walled compound with helicopters flying over it on Monday.
The attack came about a week after a surprise visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years.
Officials said the attack bore the hallmarks of previous suspected assaults by Pakistan-based militant groups, underscoring the fragility of recent efforts to revive talks between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Pakistan has condemned the attack and said it wanted to continue to build on the goodwill created by the impromptu meeting between Modi and Sharif last month. –Reuters