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Indian troops corner air force base gunmen

Published 03/01/2016

An ambulance waits outside the Pathankot air force base to carry casualties to hospital (AP)
An ambulance waits outside the Pathankot air force base to carry casualties to hospital (AP)

Indian troops are still battling at least two gunmen at an air force base near the border with Pakistan, more than 24 hours 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 "neutralised" soon.

The attack on the Pathankot air force base started before dawn on Saturday and is seen as an attempt to undo recent improvements in the relationship between arch rivals India and Pakistan. It comes a week after Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister in 12 years to visit Pakistan.

Mr Mehrishi said Indian authorities were alerted on 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 on Saturday when a group of militants entered the area of the base where the living quarters are located, the Defence Ministry said. The first gun battle with the militants lasted about 14 hours, after which the air force said it had begun operations to secure the base.

Mr 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.

"They are limited to an area and we are very hopeful that by this evening these two terrorists will be neutralised," he said.

A senior air force officer, Air Marshal Anil Khosla, said 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 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 Defence Ministry said no aircraft or military equipment had been damaged in the fighting.

The base is on the road 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 December 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 neighbours.

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