Deadly attack on Indian air base is blamed on Pakistani militants, clouding peace talks

Militants wearing army uniforms stormed an Indian air force base near the Pakistani border early Saturday, setting off a daylong battle that left five assailants and three Indian soldiers dead, according to officials and media reports.

Four attackers were killed by security forces in the early hours while a fifth remained holed up inside the base until he was gunned down more than 12 hours after the attack began around 3:30 a.m. in Pathankot, about 260 miles north of New Delhi.

Officials said they had “credible information” that the attack was carried out by militants from Pakistan, casting fresh doubt on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial efforts to engage his rival neighbor in peace talks. Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan on Christmas Day to build momentum for a planned meeting later this month between the two countries’ top diplomats.

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Previous steps toward talks have also been met with violence, leading Indian officials and analysts to argue that some elements inside Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence agencies are empowering militant groups in a bid to scuttle dialogue.

“That was quick,” Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of the Indian border state Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted following the attack. “Here’s the first major challenge to the PM Modi’s bold Pakistan gambit.”

Pakistan denied any role in the violence. Following Saturday’s attack Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the “terrorist incident.”

“We extend heartfelt condolences to the government and people of India and the bereaved families and wish the wounded speedy and full recovery,” the statement read.

This was the second attack in seven months in the border state of Punjab that Indian authorities have blamed on Pakistan-based extremists. The previous one, in which four policemen and three civilians were killed, followed a meeting between Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of a summit in Ufa, Russia, that helped pave the way for a resumption of long-delayed comprehensive peace talks.

Saturday’s attack “follows a similar pattern,” said Nitin Gokhale, an Indian national security analyst. “Every peace move — even if symbolic — is followed by an audacious attack.

“The message is that a section of the Pakistani army, egged on by the ISI, will not give up its anti-India campaign,” Gokhale said, referring to Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier spy agency.

Indian security officials, speaking to news media, said that the suspected attackers hijacked the car of a senior police official along a highway outside Pathankot after midnight on Saturday. According to Indian accounts, the assailants used the official’s cellphone to place a call to Pakistan that was intercepted by Indian intelligence, which issued an alert.

Indian officials said that due to the alert, security forces responded immediately after the militants entered the air base, about 30 miles from the Pakistani border. The attackers were contained within an administrative block of base and were not able to penetrate a secure area where fighter jets and Mi-35 attack helicopters are housed, officials said.

“Through timely and prompt action by all agencies, the likely plan of the terrorists to destroy valuable assets of the air force has been foiled,” the Indian government said in a statement.

The raid was blamed on militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was partly responsible for a 2001 assault on the parliament building in New Delhi that left 14 people dead, including five attackers. The incident prompted a major military buildup by both sides along the countries’ disputed border.

India accuses Pakistan’s security establishment for supporting groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, which Pakistan denies.

Security was tightened in New Delhi, the capital, following the attack, with additional security forces deployed to the airport, railway stations, bus stops and other key installations, the Press Trust of India reported.

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The fate of the talks between the national security advisers, tentatively set for mid-January, was not immediately clear. The meeting is seen as significant in part because of the appointment of a retired general, Nasser Khan Janjua, as Pakistan’s new national security adviser, a sign that the Pakistani army was taking control of — and tacitly endorsed — the peace process.

In India, Modi has faced opposition to his efforts to engage with Pakistan, including from some hard-liners inside his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party.

In 1999, after the two countries conducted tit-for-tat nuclear tests, the party’s standard-bearer, then-Prime Minister Atal Bijari Vajpayee visited Pakistan and the two sides signed the Lahore Declaration aimed at deterring nuclear warfare. But further progress was stopped after a Pakistani military incursion prompted the two-month Kargil conflict, the fourth war between the two countries since they gained independence from Britain in 1947.

India’s home affairs minister, Rajnath Singh, said that while India wants peace with Pakistan, “if there is any terror attack on India, we will give a befitting reply.”

In Pakistan, analysts said the fate of the talks now rest with Modi’s government, which must decide whether to continue with the peace process despite the violence.

“We should wait for the Indian government’s response on the attack,” said Hassan Askari Rizvi, an independent Pakistani security analyst. “This will decide the fate of these talks.”

Experts believe Modi remains committed to the negotiations, and that as leader of a conservative party with ties to hard-line Hindu groups, he has the political standing to make progress toward peace.

“If India wants to be seen as a regional power, it cannot itself be embroiled in a 'low-intensity conflict,' for lack of a better term, with Pakistan,” said Samir Saran, senior research fellow at the Observer Foundation, a New Delhi think tank. “For India’s medium- and long-term interests, it needs to close this issue.”

Special correspondents Parth M.N. in Mumbai and Aoun Sahi in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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UPDATE

7:23 a.m., Jan. 2: This article has been updated with new details, including a revised death toll, analysis and background information.

11:47 p.m., Jan. 1: This article has been updated with new details.

This article was first posted at 11:03 p.m.

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