After a third day of gunbattle at Pathankot Air Force Station, one more terrorist was declared killed, taking the total number to five, but indicating the continuing uncertainty about the number of infiltrators, officials said operations would continue until the base could be declared fully safe.
The attack at the airbase, located close to the Pakistan border, began early Saturday. Seven security forces personnel have been killed while 20 are injured.
A charred body was also found at the airbase and was being examined by forensic experts to ascertain if it was that of a sixth infiltrator.
“Combing and search operations continue. Security forces comprising NSG, the Army…are employed in the operation. Air Force has deployed all its assets… Police and intelligence are also working in sync to make this operation successful,” said National Security Guard Inspector General (Operations) Dushyant Singh on Monday evening.
“Given the magnitude of the airbase, operations will be conducted till we are able to fully render safe the base. However, I would like to inform that all the assets at the base, including personnel, families, have been secured and are safe,” he said.
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He did not say how many more infiltrators were suspected to be still present within the base.
According to official sources, some terrorists may have slipped into the air base even before an alert was sounded in Pathankot. “There is a high possibility that some terrorists may have entered the Pathankot air base even before an alert was sounded on January 1. Rajesh Verma (the jeweller who was abducted by terrorists on January 1) has revealed to the state police that he overheard a conversation between the terrorists and their handlers. From the conversation, he could make out that the terrorists were being pulled up for not having entered the air base yet, as two other terrorists had already done so,” said a source.
“The terrorists were heavily armed. They were using AK-47s that had a slightly different contraption attached, not like under barrel grenade launchers, but something akin to mortar launchers,” the source added. It is also being probed whether local smuggling networks were used to stash arms and ammunition somewhere near Pathankot, even before the terrorists had infiltrated.
Meanwhile, the United Jihad Council (UJC) Monday claimed responsibility for the attack. “The attack… was carried out by the national highway squad,” a Srinagar-based news agency, Current News Service (CNS), quoted UJC spokesman Syed Sadaqat Hussain as saying.
According to CNS, Hussain claimed responsibility in a statement emailed from Muzaffarabad. “Our message is that no Indian installation is out of reach of the mujahideen,” he is reported to have said. The UJC, an amalgam of militant outfits operating in Jammu and Kashmir, is headed by Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin.
According to official accounts, on the intervening night of December 31 and January 1, a group of four persons dressed in army uniforms reportedly waylaid the car of Gurdaspur SP Salwinder Singh, who was travelling with his friend Rajesh Verma and his cook Gopal Das. The SP later reported that they were tied up, and after two hours of travel, he and Gopal Das were dumped. Verma, whose throat was slit but survived, was later left in a village called Beli.
Confirming that it was known on January 1 that the Pathankot air base could be targeted, officials said the NSG was aware that it may be the attack site when they were sent to Pathankot. Securing the “inner periphery” at the air base was top priority at the time, they said.
Security officials also revealed that there were intelligence inputs in the run-up to the Pathankot attack that the Jaish-e-Mohammed was planning “something spectacular”. Recent intelligence had revealed that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) had once again warmed up to JeM, they added.
In November last year, three heavily-armed JeM militants were killed in an attack on an army camp near the Line of Control at Tangdhar in northern Kashmir. A civilian was also killed in the encounter, and a jawan had sustained injuries.
An intelligence input the same month had warned that the ISI had brought together a group of around 30 terrorists from JeM, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen that was planning to cross into Indian territory from a camp in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) to carry out attacks. A meeting of terrorists from all three outfits was facilitated by the ISI at Peshawar, where instructions to cross over into the Kashmir valley and carry out attacks were issued, that input had claimed.
Government sources said details of phone calls intercepted between the terrorists who attacked the Pathankot air base and their Pakistan-based handlers, as well as evidence of the terrorists having come from across the border, are expected to be shared with the Pakistan government whenever the two sides meet next.
The NIA has registered cases under various sections of the IPC, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Arms Act against unknown persons, sources said. The three FIRs pertain to kidnapping of SP Salwinder Singh, murder of taxi driver Ikagar Singh and the attack on Pathankot air base by six terrorists.
A team of NIA has been at the spot since Saturday. The NIA will take over the evidence and custody of the bodies of terrorists once the Army and NSG give clearance that the operation is over, sources said.
The mandate of the NIA probe will include figuring out how militants entered India.
Salwinder is likely to be questioned, sources said. The NIA may also question or seek custodial interrogation of sacked IAF personnel Ranjith KK, a Leading Air Craftman (LAC) with the IAF posted in Bhatinda, who was arrested by the Delhi Police for allegedly supplying information to the ISI, sources said.
Meanwhile, Pathankot police started collecting information about residents living in the areas abutting the Air Force Station boundary wall. Homeowners have been told to submit information about tenants as well.
Police are also checking the antecedents of 500 labourers who have access to the air base. Police are also making a list of owners and employees of shops just outside the base.
“After making the lists, we will see if there are some suspects who may have helped terrorists,” said DSP city Manoj Thakur.
Unconfirmed inputs that a labourer had seen two suspicious persons with weapons, and of a car being snatched in Manwal village kept police on their toes all day. Border Range Deputy Inspector General Kunwar Vijay Pratap Singh said a thorough search was carried out for three hours but nothing was found.
(With Bashaarat Masood in Srinagar)