India says search for attackers at air base near Pakistan border spills into another day

Two gunmen were believed to be still on the run Monday, more than 48 hours after they and several others attacked an Indian air base near the Pakistan border. At least seven troops and four gunmen have been killed in the fighting so far.

On Sunday, Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi told reporters that the last two gunmen had been cornered on the large base and would 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 about a potential attack in Pathankot, and that aerial surveillance at the base spotted the suspected militants as they entered the compound. He said they were engaged by Indian troops and were kept away from the base's aircraft and military equipment.

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 checked by troops.

Since Saturday morning, the base has been swarming with air force commandos, troops from India's elite National Security Guard and local police, but officials refused to say how many troops were involved in the fighting and combing operations.

The sprawling Pathankot air force base is spread over 25 kilometers (15 miles), including some forested sections. Defense officials would not say where on the base the fighting took place or where the suspected militants had taken cover, except to say that no aircraft or military equipment has been damaged.

The base 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 air force station 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 is being viewed as a possible attempt to unravel recent progress in the relationship between the two nations.

Police said they do not know if 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 his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif — a trip that marked a significant thaw in the mostly tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

The two 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 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.

All political parties in India condemned the attack, but there were no demands that the government call off the talks with Pakistan. In the past, when it was in opposition, Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party was a vocal critic of engagement with Pakistan.


Associated Press writer Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi contributed to this report.