Within hours of the Indian consulate in Herat coming under attack, Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the incident would not “dilute” India’s commitment towards the development assistance to Afghanistan, and reiterated the “abiding friendship” between the two peoples and governments.
Four heavily armed terrorists launched a pre-dawn assault with rocket propelled grenades and machine guns on the consulate in the Afghan city close to the country’s border with Iran, but failed to cause much damage.
One attacker was shot by Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commandos guarding the building; the other three were killed by Afghan security forces.
The gunman who was shot dead by the ITBP commandos was carrying enough ammunition and dry fruit to sustain himself for two or three days, a senior security official said on Friday.
Officials said the attackers could have been planning to take hostages in the consulate, and extend the crisis until Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday, which Karzai will attend.
While the government continued to analyse details of the nine-hour attack, the Ministry of External Affairs said on Friday evening that the attack showed that the main threat to Afghanistan’s stability and security stemmed from terrorism “beyond its borders”.
The MEA did not mention Pakistan. The ministry spokesperson also refused to draw a link between the attack in Herat and the invitation extended to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for Modi’s swearing-in.
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Karzai called Modi on Friday afternoon. During their 10-minute conversation, Karzai described the attack as “an attack on Afghanistan, India and our shared interests”, assured the PM-designate that everything would be done to protect Indian missions in Afghanistan.
Modi thanked Karzai for the efforts made by the Afghan security forces to foil the attack.
The PM-designate condemned the attack on Twitter, announced he had spoken to India’s ambassador in Kabul Amar Sinha, and said he was “closely monitoring the situation”. All nine members of India’s diplomatic staff at the Herat consulate are safe.
In subsequent tweets, Modi saluted the “efforts of India’s security personnel & Afghan security forces for their valiant efforts to fight the terrorists in Herat”, and “the Consulate staff for their indomitable spirit & high morale throughout the difficult circumstances”.
India is carrying out several development projects in Herat province, including building the $ 200-million Salma hydroelectric and irrigation dam project.
The attack was condemned by President Pranab Mukherjee, outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Vice President Hamid Ansari.
Mukherjee said “India will stand united and strong in defending its security and interests wherever they may be threatened,” and called upon Indian security forces to remain alert and give a fitting response to any attempt to harm the country and its people.
Singh said the attacks “will neither succeed in undermining the close relations between India and Afghanistan nor deter India from fulfilling its commitment to help the Afghan people in building a peaceful, stable, united, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan”.
Around 4 am India time on Friday, ITBP commandos at the consulate heard a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and spotted an armed militant trying to scale the building wall. A black bag the man was carrying on his shoulders got stuck in the concertina wire on the wall, but he managed to drop himself into the compound.
Carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, he ran for about 15-20 metres before he was brought down, an officer said. The terrorist appeared to be trying to get inside one of the rooms in the building, the officer said.
From a man’s bag, security forces recovered an AK-47 rifle fitted with an under-barrel grenade launcher (UBGL), six magazines, four hand grenades, 17 RPG shells and dry fruit.
The militant, who was wearing a light blue pathan suit, was also carrying a water bottle. He had a multi-pouch vest strapped on, but all its pockets were empty. He died six-seven hours after he was shot, officials said.
“We shot him, but stayed away from the body until the operation outside the complex was over. He could have been a suicide bomber. He lay in the complex, and had water from his bottle. Just before he died, he tied a piece of cloth on his eyes,” a senior official said.
The other three militants were killed after an assault by Afghan security forces on a civilian building 100 metres from the consulate. Officials said the RPG round that landed near the consulate building shattered window panes and shook walls. A team of 23 ITBP personnel led by Inspector Manjit Singh was present at the consulate when it was attacked. Six commandos were on guard duty at the time.
“Our consulate is located in a residential area. We cannot use heavy arms. They can cause collateral damage,” ITBP D-G Subhash Goswami said.
Goswami said there was a general alert for the past several weeks about a possible attack on all five installations the ITBP guards in Afghanistan. “In April, we sent an additional 80 commandos to secure the Kabul embassy, and the consulates in Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharief, Kandahar and Herat,” he said.
A high-level team led by Goswami was likely to fly to Afghanistan on Saturday to review the security arrangements at the embassy, consulates and other important installations.
Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam condemned the attack. “No cause justifies the targeting of diplomatic missions. It is a matter of relief that no one from the consulate staff was hurt,” she said.
The Afghan ambassador in New Delhi, Shaida Mohammad Abdali, said the incident would only “embolden” his country’s determination to keep the friendship with India “at all costs”.