As the operation against the terrorists entered the third day, NSG, IAF and Army officers said there was no collateral damage to the strategic Air Force assets. At least two terrorists are believed to be holed up in a two-storey building in the complex.
He said that the terrorists had come “well prepared” and were “heavily armed” with an aim to target the strategic assets of the Air Force.
Sunday morning’s nasty surprise was in fact in line with the many missteps since the terror threat was discovered on the early morning of January 1. Within the military and the rest of the security establishment, and outside, several questions are being raised about the way the entire operation was handled.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in the national capital on Sunday evening, and directly went into a huddle with senior officials including National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and others to discuss the terror strike.
The PM’s meeting was the culmination of daylong consultations by Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and others with various stakeholders. No dramatic change in the PM’s Pakistan policy was expected immediately, sources hinted.
The morning began peacefully in Pathankot airbase, and there was no inkling of the dramatic events that were to unfold over the next several hours.
Around 10 a.m., Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan Kumar and his team from the National Security Guard were examining the body of a terrorist killed the previous evening, and probably trying to defuse an explosive attached to it, when the device detonated, killing him and injuring the others.
Security force casualties now stood at seven dead. “There seems to have been an accident, in which five NSG personnel were injured. Leader of the team Lt. Col. Niranjan succumbed to his injuries,” Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi said.
And by 12.20 p.m. the security forces realised that two more terrorists were alive, when firing came from different locations. By evening, the two were killed in the operations, sources said, thus taking the total number of terrorists killed until Sunday evening to six.
Centre did not get its act together
The discovery of two more terrorists inside the Pathankot airbase on Sunday came more than 17 hours after Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed a successful end to the operations. Though Mr. Singh had withdrawn the claim of five terrorists being killed on Saturday — only four had been killed — he did not say that the operation was not over. The dissonant note from the Home Minister was not the only isolated instance in the government response to the terror strike on the forward airbase. From the moment Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh and his cook Madan Gopal reached a local police station to narrate their ordeal at the hands of the terrorists, there was complete incoherence in the response.
A top intelligence officer told The Hindu they were not sure whether the terrorists belonged to Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Their initial presumption was based on a piece of paper recovered from SP Salwinder Singh’s vehicle, which was snatched by the terrorists and abandoned later. “It is all a presumption till now that they belonged to JeM. We have not recovered any GPS sets yet that could have given clues about their location. It could be LeT as well… we don’t know yet,” said the intelligence official.
All operations to retrieve some kind of identification from the slain terrorists were suspended after NSG commando Lieutenant Colonel Niranjan died while handling a body. A senior official said a grenade, hidden in the terrorist’s shirt pocket, exploded when the Lt. Col tried to drag the body to another location, a standard drill in such cases. A team of the National Investigation Agency, which has been camping in Pathankot for the past two-days, has not made any recoveries as the operation was still on.
A senior government official said the Border Security Force (BSF) had scanned footages from the surveillance cameras installed along Punjab’s and Jammu’s border with Pakistan. “There has been no breach along the fences…. For the past three days, we have also checked the border areas for some kind of tunnel, but haven’t found anything yet,” the official said.
He said the BSF sent out teams to different locations near the Pakistan border, from the two places where the slain taxi driver’s and SP Salwinder Singh’s vehicles were found abandoned by the terrorists, but failed to trace the route the intruders could have possibly taken.
Another official said the terrorists stagger themselves in groups during fidayeen attacks and wait for an opportune moment, when a number of security personnel have assembled to clear up the area, to strike. This was done, he said, to inflict maximum casualties.