The terrorists who attacked the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot before dawn on Saturday had a headstart of several hours from the time the first unusual incidents were reported in that area.
The Punjab government has said that the men who killed taxi driver Ikagar Singh, and later waylaid superintendent of police Salwinder Singh, commandeering his SUV and throwing him and his two companions out, were the same as the ones who attacked the airbase.
The snatching of the Mahindra XUV 500 in which the officer was travelling came to the notice of the Punjab Police about 3 am on Friday. But it was well after 12 hours later that the police reacted — after the body of Ikagar was found a short distance from where the SP’s SUV was intercepted.
A senior military official said the first alert from Punjab Police came in the late afternoon, after which security at all defence installations was ramped up. By the time ADGP (Law & Order) Hardeep Singh Dhillon rushed to Pathankot, ordered searches in the area, and the barricades came up, it was already dark. With alarm bells ringing, the National Security Guard (NSG) was flown to Pathankot late in the evening.
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It took the police a long time — and much hesitation — to say that the men behind the two incidents on the Jammu-Pathankot highway may be “possible” terrorists. In the 24 hours that the men appeared to have roamed free in the area, they also called someone in Bahawalpur in Pakistan using the SP’s mobile phone.
Salwinder, the SP (Headquarters) in Gurdaspur who had just been transferred to the 75th battalion of the Punjab Armed Police, was abducted around midnight on December 31, sources in the Punjab Police said. He and his two companions were beaten and tied to trees. They managed to free themselves, and informed the Pathankot police around 3 am on Friday. The police, however, took a long time reacting, possibly because they were not immediately convinced of Salwinder’s story about being waylaid by men in Army fatigues.
It was only after ADGP Dhillon reached Pathankot that the red alert was sounded at 4.30 pm Friday, sources said. “We lost 14 vital hours, and daylight. Had we sounded the alarm sooner, losses could have been minimised,” a police officer said. ADGP Dhillon was not available for a comment.
A retired Punjab Police officer said it was odd that the police failed to react even after a senior police officer had been abducted. Sources said it was possible that had the vehicle not suffered a tyre burst near Tajpur, the terrorists would travelled farther, and could have reached an ammunition dump a few kilometres from Dera Baba Nanak.