Saturday 17 March 2018

Attack by suspected militants leaves at least 11 dead in India

n Indian army soldier is seen during a search operation in a forest area outside the Pathankot air force base in Pathankot, India. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)
n Indian army soldier is seen during a search operation in a forest area outside the Pathankot air force base in Pathankot, India. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Indian security forces are trying to secure a major air force base near the border with Pakistan where an attack by suspected militants left at least 11 people dead, amid reports of fresh gunfire at the compound.

The attack on the Pathankot air force base, which started before dawn, left seven Indian troops and four gunmen dead, and is seen as an attempt to undo recent improvements in the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Combing operations were continuing at the base, air force spokeswoman Rochelle D'Silva said.

At least one grenade blast was heard from inside the compound this morning and several television channels reported that there was fresh gunfire later in the day. At least seven trucks with soldiers and several armoured vehicles were seen entering the base, but officials declined to comment.

Since Saturday morning, the base has been swarming with air force commandos, troops from India's elite National Security Guard and local police.

The number of troops killed in the attack rose to seven after four soldiers succumbed to their injuries overnight and another died after being wounded in an explosion, officials said.

Ms D'Silva gave no details about the death of an elite commando except to say that he was seriously wounded in a blast. News reports said the commando was killed while defusing explosives.

The attack at one of India's major air force bases started a few hours before dawn when a group of militants entered the area of the base where the living quarters are located, the Defence Ministry said.

The gunbattle - which lasted about 14 hours - came just a week after Indian PM Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to archrival Pakistan and met with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.

It was the first visit to Pakistan in 12 years by an Indian prime minister and marked a significant thaw in the mostly tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

The two leaders also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.

The sprawling Pathankot air force base is spread over several miles, including some forested sections. It houses a fleet of India's Russian-origin MiG-21 fighters and Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, along with other military hardware.

The Defence Ministry said no aircraft or military equipment was damaged in the fighting.

The base is on the highway that connects India's insurgency-plagued Jammu and Kashmir state with the rest of the country. It is also very close to India's border with Pakistan.

The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but is claimed in its entirety by both. Rebels in India's portion of Kashmir have been fighting since 1989 for independence or merger with Pakistan.

India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the insurgents, a charge Islamabad denies, and the attack at the base was seen as a possible attempt to unravel recent progress in the relationship between the two nations.

A top government official confirmed Indian troops are still battling at least two gunmen at the base.

Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said that the suspected militants appeared to have been cornered and that he expected them to be "neutralised" soon.

Press Association

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