A week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced trip to Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s home in Lahore to signal the willingness at the top to revive ties between the two countries, heavily-armed terrorists, suspected to be members of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad, attacked the Pathankot airbase in a pre-dawn strike Saturday.
Security forces, including commandos of the National Security Guard and Army and Indian Air Force personnel, engaged the terrorists, and gunbattles through the day left at least four terrorists and three security personnel dead — there are fears that the count of dead among security personnel may be higher. It was unclear how many terrorists were in the assault team.
Officials said search and sanitising operations at the airbase were continuing to eliminate the possibility that more intruders could be holed up inside. They said the terrorists were unable to enter the area where MiG-21 fighter aircraft and attack helicopters were parked. As security forces on the ground engaged the terrorists, attack helicopters took to the air.
A senior military officer said the terrorists entered the airbase around 3 am from a point that adjoins a village. That area of the airbase has housing for personnel, administrative offices, an officers’ mess and the Defence Services Corps Mess. The building they entered first was the DSC Mess.
“The personnel inside were taken by surprise,” the officer said. Five DSC men were shot at. The DSC comprises ex-servicemen who provide security cover to installations of the three services and civil establishments of the Ministry of Defence.
The airbase had been on high alert since Friday evening after two incidents off the Jammu-Pathankot highway early Friday. One was the murder of a taxi driver, and the other the hijacking of an SUV of a Superintendent of Police who managed to escape and alert the police.
Police initially disbelieved the SP’s story which led to delay in joining the dots. But by afternoon, when the taxi driver’s body was also found, the police had a clearer picture. They sent a CD of the SP’s interrogation to the National Security Advisor. Other intelligence inputs, said to be based on phone calls made by the terrorists to Pakistan, had also started coming in.
The NSG arrived at the Pathankot airbase and the Garud commandos of the IAF were also placed on high alert.
One terrorist was shot down as he was clambering over a 10-ft wall topped by concertina wire. Another account said he was shot as he tried to squeeze inside after removing a water-exit grill below the fence.
After the shooting spree at the the DSC Mess, the terrorists split into two groups.
One group hid in a building next to a furniture yard, while the other hid in sarkanda, a patch of tall grass, the official said. The NSG, which went after the group in the building, contemplated blowing up the structure but held back when they realised that three IAF ground liaison officers were also inside.
Later, they approached the building in a Casspir, a mine-protected vehicle. The terrorists, armed with assault rifles and grenades, were eliminated after a long battle.
The group in the sarkanda was taken on by military personnel, and “neutralised” after a long and fierce firefight, the officer said.
Suresh Arora, Director General of Punjab Police, whose men assisted in the operation along with the Border Security Force, said late Saturday the “operation is still on”.
(PTI adds: In a statement, the IAF said it had intelligence that such an attack would take place. “Intelligence inputs had been available of a likely attempt by terrorists to infiltrate into the military installation in Pathankot area. In response, preparatory actions had been taken by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to thwart any such attempt,” it said.
“The infiltrators were immediately engaged and contained within a limited area, thus preventing them from entering the technical zone where high value assets are parked. Through timely and prompt action by all agencies, the likely plan of the terrorists to destroy valuable assets of the Air Force has been foiled,” it said.)
The sprawling airbase is located adjacent to highway around Pathankot that connects to Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and various cities of Punjab, Amritsar on one side and Chandigarh and Jalandhar on the other side. Adjacent to the airbase is the populated locality of Dhaki whose residents woke up to gunshots around 3 am Saturday.
“The security arrangements around the airbase had been in place since Friday evening itself. I have never seen such heavy security arrangements around the airbase before. Helicopters had been hovering in the sky since yesterday itself,” said a locality resident Ankit Sareen. “I woke up to gunshots at around 3 am,” said another resident Janak Raj.