A bloody attempt to sabotage the developing dialogue between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan was “doomed to happen”, experts have said.
A week after the surprise visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, four gunmen and two guards were killed when unidentified men attacked an Indian Air Force base near the Pakistan border.
Officials said the gunmen, wearing army fatigues, managed to enter the Pathankot air base in India’s north-western state of Punjab before dawn today. Once inside, they opened fire indiscriminately. They had earlier hijacked a police officer’s car and driven it to the heavily guarded base – tactics used in previous attacks believed to have been perpetrated by Pakistani-trained militants, Punjab’s police chief, Suresh Arora, said.
Four gunmen and two guards were confirmed killed, and sporadic gunfire continued into the day.
The attack came a week after Mr Modi made an impromptu visit to Mr Sharif, in a bid to revive bilateral talks that had been derailed by other militant attacks.
“The moment that Modi touched down in Lahore – and probably even before – something like this was doomed to happen,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Centre think-tank in Washington. “At this point, there’s sufficient goodwill in India-Pakistan relations to weather this attack. Saboteurs won’t win this one.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Indian security sources said the attack may have been carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed (“the Army of Mohamed”), a militant group based in Pakistan that demands independence for Indian-ruled Kashmir.
India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, said India wanted peace with Pakistan but that any terrorist attack would get “a befitting response”. Pakistan later condemned the attack and said it wanted to build on the goodwill created in the recent high-level contacts. “Pakistan remains committed to partner with India as well as other countries in the region to completely eradicate the menace of terrorism,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
The raid resembled an assault last July by gunmen in uniform on a police post in a Punjabi border town that killed nine people. However, the attack was more audacious in targeting a large military base, from which India’s Russian-made fleet of MiG-21 fighter jets and Mi-35 attack helicopters fly.
We have seen the same pattern again and again when there are attempts to restart the peace dialogue,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi. “It may lead to a momentary pause in the peace dialogue and attacks from the opposition for not pursuing a harder line, but I don’t think it will have a long-term impact.”