Mr. Mehrishi said that four suspected militants wearing Indian Army uniforms were said to have hijacked a vehicle belonging to a Punjab police officer in Gurdaspur District, near Pathankot, on Thursday night. Hours later, the police officer and other passengers were ejected from the car.
On Friday, the area was put on alert, Mr. Mehrishi said, and gunmen infiltrated the air force base and began firing at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday.
“The terrorists were located by means of aerial surveillance, which had been mounted by air force overnight, and they were immediately engaged,” Mr. Mehrishi said. He said that the attackers were prevented from gaining access to what was believed to be their intended target, the area of the base where aircraft and other military equipment are kept.
The government, however, claimed there was no major security lapse and ‘some casualties are obvious when there is an operation of this scale’. Mehrishi added efforts were continuing to flush out two more terrorist holed up at the air base and said that the government was aware of Pathankot being a target.
Seven security personnel have been killed in the attack so far, the deadliest in 15 years at an air base.
Among those killed was a lieutenant colonel of the National Security Guard, India’s elite commando force. The officer died in an explosion when he was checking the body of a terrorist, Mr. Mehrishi said. One air force commando was also killed, as well as five armed guards working for the Indian Air Force.
Attacks on security forces and military bases are unusual in Punjab.
The attack on the base follows an impromptu visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistan on Dec. 25 to visit Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the first such visit in almost 12 years. The meeting was seen as a step toward the resumption of a stalled dialogue between the countries.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.
Some Indian security officials suggested the Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed was to blame.
India says the group is backed by Pakistan, but Islamabad denies this.
In July 2015 seven people were killed in a similar attack when gunmen stormed a police station in nearby Gurdaspur district.
A Lieutenant Colonel heading the National Security Guards’ (NSG) bomb disposal squad was among the seven fatalities in the terrorist attack on the Pathankot Air Force station. Five NSG commandos were among the 20 who sustained injuries.
The high number of casualties and injuries despite “specific Intelligence inputs” is being viewed in security circles with concern. Particularly a senior officer of an elite counter-terrorist force losing his life during sanitisation operations. A commando from the IAF’s Garud special force, Gursevek Singh, was also killed.
Lt Col Niranjan E Kumar was commissioned into 10 Engineer Regiment in 2004 and moved to the NSG on deputation in May 2014. He leaves behind his wife and an 18-month-old daughter.
The last rites are scheduled to be performed at his hometown, Palakkad in Kerala, tomorrow.
The mortal remains would be airlifted to Bengaluru and thereafter ferried by road.
A tweet by the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, stated that the officer was killed in “mopping-up operations”.
Reports suggested that the NSG casualties occurred due to an explosion from either an IED that the terrorists were carrying or a booby-trapped body that was moved by them.
One of the NSG jawans, Bhoop Singh, who sustained serious head injuries, has been airlifted to Chandigarh.
Hailing from Ambala, IAF commando Gursevak had been hit during the initial gunfire. He carried on fighting and later succumbed to his injuries. He got married a month ago.
Most of the other fatalities were from the Defence Security Corps (DSC), a branch comprising retired armed forces personnel who are reemployed for undertaking guard duties at military establishments. They included 51-year-old national shooting champion Subedar Fateh Singh and Hav Kulwant Singh, both of whom were from Gurdaspur, and jawans Jagdish Singh and Sanjiv Kumar.
One of the DSC jawans had chased a terrorist and killed him with the terrorist’s own weapon before falling to fire from the other intruders.