Indian troops yesterday killed four suspected militants who entered an air force base near the border with Pakistan and exchanged fire with security forces, officials and news reports said. At least two Indian soldiers were also killed in an attack seen as an attempt to undo progress made in the relationship between rivals India and Pakistan.
The attack on Pathankot Air Force Station began before dawn, and by late morning it appeared that the violence had ended with the killing of the gunmen. However, just two hours later, fresh gunfire erupted at the base.
A helicopter could be seen at about noon firing at an area inside the base, which is about 430km north of New Delhi. Shots could also be heard from inside the base. No other details were available, and telephone calls to the Indian Ministry of Defence and air force officials went unanswered.
At least four gunmen entered the living quarters of the base early yesterday, but were unable to penetrate the area where combat helicopters and other military equipment are kept, air force spokeswoman Rochelle D’Silva said.
The Press Trust of India news agency cited police as saying that four attackers were killed following an hours-long gunfight, and that police started an operation to clear a wider area of other possible intruders.
The attack was viewed by many in India as an attempt to unravel recent progress in the country’s relationship with archrival Pakistan. The violence came just a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Pakistan to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Modi’s visit was seen as a potential sign of thawing relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. The two leaders also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.
“These kinds of attacks are nothing new and have generally been the outcome of the dispute of India and Pakistan over Kashmir,” said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist at Central University in Indian Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but is claimed in its entirety by both.
Baba said that there were elements in both countries that would like to see the peace process fizzle out, and that all sides must “exhibit political maturity and sagacity to defeat the vested interests.”
Ahead of Modi’s visit to Pakistan, the national security advisers of both countries had met in Thailand to discuss issues including peace and security, terrorism, the disputed region of Kashmir and ways to maintain peace along the countries’ shared border.
The foreign secretaries of both nations are scheduled to meet in Islamabad later this month.
Pathankot, in Punjab state, is on the highway that connects India’s insurgency-wracked Jammu & Kashmir state with the rest of the country. It is also close to India’s border with Pakistan.
Police said they suspected the gunmen who entered the air force base were militants, and were investigating whether they had come from the Indian portion of Kashmir or from Pakistan. Rebels routinely stage attacks in Indian-held Kashmir, where they have been fighting since 1989 for an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan.
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