For the second straight day, the Indian Air Force (IAF) air base here remained the scene of intense gun battles after at least two more terrorists emerged from hiding overnight and engaged security forces throughout Sunday.
The total number of security personnel killed in the operation went up to seven — Lt Col Niranjan Kumar of the National Security Guard (NSG), five Defence Security Corps (DSC) personnel and an Air Force Garud commando.
Officials said in the evening that the operation was continuing, but played down concerns over the rising military casualties and why it was taking so long to take back control. They said the operation was “heading towards completion”, and the terrorists had been prevented from reaching their main target, the technical area of the airport.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with top officials, including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to discuss the attack, on Sunday night. Earlier in the day, Modi was briefed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.
Addressing a briefing in Delhi, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said five NSG personnel, including Lt Col Niranjan Kumar, were injured in an accidental grenade explosion, while checking the body of a dead terrorist at 10 am on Sunday. The officer later succumbed to his injuries.
Eight IAF and 12 NSG personnel have been injured. One of the injured, Naik Sri Mallu, has been airlifted to Chandigarh.
Air Marshal Anil Khosla, Director General of Air Operations, said the “operation is at a mature stage, but we give a confirmation only once we physically see the bodies of the terrorists.” He added, “Only once the whole area is sanitised and checked, can we say there were only six terrorists.”
So far, the bodies of four terrorists have been recovered from the area of operation. ”The operation is on and is heading towards completion,” said J S Dhamoon, Air Officer Commanding, at Pathankot.
The firing inside the base continued throughout the day near an area where the terrorists are said to have first entered. A number of blasts could be heard. The security forces are reported to have demolished a building that was being used by the terrorists.
IAF attack helicopters were pressed into service once again on Sunday morning. The helicopters widened the surveillance to include the area around the adjoining Akalgarh village, where the terrorists abandoned a vehicle that they had snatched from a police official on Friday.
Police and security personnel sealed the village from all sides as helicopters carried out the surveillance, and contingents of the army, BSF and Punjab police were deployed in different layers around the village and IAF station.
Giving an account of how the attack took place, Dhamoon said four terrorists moving in a group first opened fire on the windows of a facility in the air base. ”They headed towards the DSC mess where they opened indiscriminate fire,” he said, adding that one DSC jawan ran towards the last of the four militants and “jostled with him, killing the terrorist with the terrorist’s rifle”. Dhamoon said the DSC jawan was killed by a bullet fired by one of the terrorists.
While three other terrorists were killed on Saturday, Mehrishi said at that point, they “were not certain whether there were other terrorists or not”. But the operation was slowed down to avoid unnecessary risk to security personnel, he said.
“In the morning, at 12:30 pm, two other terrorists who were hiding were discovered. Operations are going on. They are limited to an area and we are very hopeful that by this evening, these two terrorists will also be neutralised,” said Mehrishi.
”Due to the active intelligence input, advance information and quick action by security forces, especially the Air Force, we were able to ensure that there was no damage to the assets of the Air Force. Therefore, the apparent main aim of the terrorists stands defeated,” he said.
Asked if the number of casualties suffered by the security forces despite an intelligence alert pointed to a lapse, the Home Secretary said, “I do not consider it a lapse at all. In such a situation, when weapons are in use, some injuries and some deaths are bound to take place.”
On how the terrorists managed to enter the IAF base despite intelligence and pre-positioning of the NSG, Mehrishi said, “The exact point of attack in Pathankot was not known. So NSG was there waiting for instructions, basically on alert and on stand-by mode. The NSG entered the IAF base the moment the attack took place. There was no way of knowing whether the attack would be on the Air Force or Army.”
Mehrishi said a terror alert was sounded in all vital installations and government offices immediately after Punjab police relayed information about two incidents between Gurdaspur and Pathankot, a murder and a carjacking, involving four men in army fatigues.
”Efforts were mounted to reconfirm the infiltration and also see which direction the terrorists had taken and what their location might be,” said Mehrishi.
By afternoon, when their location was tracked to Pathankot, a meeting was held at the level of the NSA and was attended by all concerned, including the Chief of Army Staff. A unit of the NSG was dispatched to Pathankot on the same day.
According to Air Marshal Khosla, “After the advance warning was issued, all airfields were put on alert, especially the Pathankot area, because there was a specific input that this is the area where it is likely that something could happen.”
Meanwhile, asked to explain why the government thought the counter-attack was effective, a top government official closely involved with the operation said: “The terrorists came to attack Indian defence installations. Their target was not people. They wanted to destroy tanks and aircraft. We were successful in keeping them away, confined to outer areas.”
When asked about the death toll, the official said: “They had guns in their hands. When you counter-attack the terrorists who have come to destroy and die, they will surely hit back. We ensured minimum casualty. We ensured that terrorists come under control without hitting their prime target.”
When asked how the attack would affect the peace initiative kickstarted by the PM’s Lahore visit, the official said: “Some people want to continue their dukaan of conflict… they don’t want to be out of business. Let us see.”
— With inputs from Sheela Bhatt, New Delhi