Forensic investigators have failed to find human bone or tooth fragments in a charred mass claimed to be the remains of a terrorist killed by the National Security Guard (NSG) during the Jaish-e-Muhammad strike on the Pathankot airbase, official sources have told The Indian Express.
The absence of this material means that DNA evidence is unlikely to settle the debate over whether four terrorists were involved in the attack on Pathankot, as the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) believe, or six, as the NSG claimed.
New Delhi had hoped the DNA evidence would be available ahead of a visit by a special investigation team that Pakistan has set up to investigate the Pathankot attack. The team is expected to conclude its investigation inside Pakistan by the weekend, Pakistani media have reported.
Asha Dhir, Director of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Chandigarh, did not respond to requests for comment from The Indian Express. A senior NIA officer said the agency had, so far, not received any report from the CFSL.
In seven rounds of searches of the airmen’s billet which concluded last week, an NIA officer said, investigators had failed to find even small fragments of weapons, grenades, or human bones — all of which would have supported the NSG’s claim to have battled two terrorists, in addition to the four killed some distance away during the first hours of the raid.
NSG commandos had fought for 48 hours at the airmen’s billet, where they believed two terrorists were holed up, eventually setting the building on fire.
“For the sake of argument, I’m willing to concede the fire was intense enough to reduce corpses to dust, even though you usually find bones and teeth even after a cremation,” the officer said. “However, the fact is that assault rifles or pistols don’t melt in fires. Even exploding ammunition leaves behind metal shrapnel.”
The forensic tests were ordered to determine the nature of a charred round mass, a little less than half-a-metre long and about two-thirds of a metre in diameter, that the NSG handed over, wrapped in combat-fatigue coloured cloth.
Forensic experts, however, say the absence of bones or teeth in the charred remains makes extracting DNA for testing near impossible. In a 2011 paper in the journal Forensic Science International, a team of scientists from the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich recorded that reliable tests were possible on bones exposed to heat up to 300°C. DNA has been extracted from teeth exposed to up to 500°C-600°C, forensic expert K L Girish recorded in a 2010 paper. But in this case, no teeth have been found.
“The bottom line is there is no material evidence to back up the NSG’s claim,” an intelligence officer said.
Following the killing of the first four terrorists after fighting began before dawn on January 2, a source connected to the operation said, orders were initially issued to wind down operations. Home Minister Rajnath Singh went on Twitter at 9.15 am to congratulate “our armed forces and other security forces on successfully neutralising all the five
Four terrorists had, however, been killed up to that point. And later, as intelligence generated by the Jammu and Kashmir Police was passed on, there were indications that two more might have been in the attack team.
NSG commandos were ordered to search nearby buildings, and eventually made their way to one of the six doors of the airmen’s billet. “The commandos knocked but the door was closed from inside,” NSG Director General R C Tayal said earlier last month. “A grenade was lobbed from inside in which five commandos got injuries and one got serious injuries.”
Tayal went on to say that though no NSG commando visually sighted the two suspected terrorists, wall-penetrating radar indicated the presence of at least one person in the building. “According to us, weapons were with them as we were getting firing from inside,” Tayal said. “Besides weapons, they were carrying large quantity of explosives too.”
Firing broke out at the far end of the base at about the same time, as troops fired on wild pigs, suspecting movement in the elephant grass to indicate human presence.
The next day, as fighting continued at the airmen’s billet, Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi announced that “we are sure that still there are at least two more terrorists as firing have come from two different places”.
NIA officers say they have no explanation for how NSG commandos were injured outside the airmen’s billet if there were no terrorists inside. “I do not want to speculate,” a senior officer who has studied the site said. “The only thing I can say for certain is that there is no material evidence to corroborate the claim that two terrorists were killed in the building.”
Intelligence sources say that a finding that only four terrorists were involved in the attack would be consistent with other independent evidence. In one intercepted phone call, made just after 3 pm on January 1, a terrorist using the code-name ‘Nasir’ told his mother that the three men with him had refused to kill hijacked taxi driver Ikagar Singh, forcing him to do the job alone.
Rajesh Verma, a jeweller kidnapped by the terrorists and briefly held hostage, also spoke of four men in his interrogation though his friend, Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh, referred to four or five men being involved.
DNA tests on the four confirmed dead will be key to aiding investigators in tracing their families in Pakistan.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy advisor, recently revealed that investigators there had traced one number intercepted by Indian intelligence to the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s headquarters.
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