PATHANKOT, India – Indian troops were still battling at least two gunmen Sunday night at an air force base near the border with Pakistan, more than a day and a half after the compound came under attack, a top government official said. At least seven troops and four gunmen have been killed in the fighting so far.
The two suspected militants were discovered shortly after noon Sunday and hours later appeared to have been cornered, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi told reporters, adding that he expected the gunmen to be "neutralized" soon.
The attack on the Pathankot air force base started before dawn Saturday and is seen as an attempt to undo recent improvements in the relationship between archrivals India and Pakistan. It comes a week after Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister in 12 years to visit Pakistan.
Mehrishi said Indian authorities were alerted Friday afternoon about a potential terror attack in Pathankot, and that aerial surveillance at the base spotted the suspected militants as they entered the compound. He said they were quickly engaged by Indian troops and "were unable to move toward their likely intended target" of the area where the base's aircraft and military equipment are kept.
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 on Sunday, with four succumbing to their injuries overnight and an elite commando killed in a morning blast that occurred while he was handling explosives, officials said.
The attack at one of India's major air force bases started a few hours before dawn Saturday when a group of militants entered the area of the base where the living quarters are located, the Defense Ministry said. The first gunbattle with the militants lasted about 14 hours, after which the air force said it had begun operations to secure the base.
Mehrishi said that troops were not certain of the presence of additional gunmen until they were discovered Sunday afternoon, and that the two men were cornered in a wooded area of the base by the evening.
"They are limited to an area and we are very hopeful that by this evening these two terrorists will be neutralized," he said.
A senior air force officer, Air Marshal Anil Khosla, told reporters in New Delhi that the base will not be declared fully secured until the entire area is thoroughly checked by troops.
The sprawling Pathankot air force base is spread over several kilometers (miles), including some forested sections. It houses a fleet of India's Russian-origin MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-25 and Mi-35 attack helicopters, along with other military hardware.
The Defense Ministry said no aircraft or military equipment had been 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's 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 is being viewed as a possible attempt to unravel recent progress in the relationship between the two nations.
Police have said they're investigating whether the gunmen came from the Indian portion of Kashmir, where rebels routinely stage attacks, or from Pakistan.
The violence follows Indian Prime Minister Modi's surprise Dec. 25 visit to Pakistan, where he met with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif — a trip that marked a significant thaw in the mostly tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
The two leaders also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.
Ahead of Modi's visit to Pakistan, the national security advisers of both countries met in Thailand. The foreign secretaries of both nations are scheduled to meet in Islamabad later this month.
The responses to the weekend attack from both countries have been muted so far, with neither New Delhi nor Islamabad giving any indication that the planned talks are under any threat.
In Pakistan, Sharif's foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said in a radio interview Saturday, as the attack was unfolding, that Pakistan wants to consolidate its improved relations with India. Pakistan's foreign ministry condemned the attack.
The reaction in India has also been quiet so far. While all political parties condemned the attack, there was no immediate demand that the government call off talks with Pakistan. In the past, when it was in opposition, Modi's own right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has been the most vocal critic of engagement with Pakistan, saying that talks and terror should not go together.
But with Modi's own diplomatic engagement with Islamabad at stake, the BJP has given no indication yet that the planned talks have been threatened by the attack.