(From PTI with other agencies)
With the fifth terrorist killed, search operations were in their final phase as security forces moved to secure every inch of Pathankot’s Indian Air Force (IAF) base on Monday.
Occasional sound of firing and a blast was heard from inside and IAF helicopters flew over the base to help ground forces as the counter offensive against terrorists holed up there neared 60 hours.
“We have eliminated four terrorists and operation to eliminate two more terrorists is in the final stage,” National Security Guards (NSG) Inspector General Major General Dushant Singh told the media.
“The operation will continue till all the personnel, assets and structure are physically combed. So it is likely to take a long time,” he said.
“These terrorists are holed up in a double-storey building which is a living accommodation of the air force personnel. The operations are on to clear this building of terrorists,” said Brigadier Anupinder Singh.
The officers said the terrorists had come well prepared and were heavily armed with the aim of targeting strategic assets of the IAF at the frontier base where a MIG-21 Bison fighter squadron and MI-35 attack helicopters are stationed.
“Army and paramilitary forces have surrounded the entire base, which is spread over a huge area and has undulating terrain, buildings and forest area which have to be searched very carefully to avoid casualties. That is why the operation is taking longer time to complete,” a Punjab Police officer said.
He said steps were being taken to ensure that no terrorist escapes from the area.
A search operation is also underway in nearby villages for possible terrorists. There were reports of raids by security agencies at some other places in Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)-based militant body United Jihad Council (UJC) claimed responsibility for the Pathankot Airbase attack.
2 teams of terrorists involved in attack
The presence of two or more Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM)-trained terrorists still holed up at the base points to the involvement of two teams of militants in Saturday’s heinous attack.
Since combing operations in the forest near the base have not helped the security forces to find any vehicle used by the second team of terrorists, it is assumed that a local JeM unit might have dropped them near the base.
The first team of terrorists — four youths in army uniform — hijacked a car at Kolian on Thursday and traveled about 1,000 kilometers to Pathankot. They abandoned the vehicle at Tajpur village on Friday after slitting the throat of one of the passengers Rajesh Verma, a jeweler from Gurudaspur.
Verma, 40, who survived the attack and alerted the security forces about the impending attack, was returning home from a shrine along with his friend Salwinder Singh, a former superintendent of police of Gurudaspur, and his cook Madan Gopal.
According to police, the calls made by the terrorists from the seized cell phones of Verma and Singh indicate that the two teams of terrorists approached the Pathankot air force base from different directions.
Police are checking the footage obtained from the toll plaza on the Gurdaspur-Pathankot highway and police and paramilitary checkpoints on the Bamiyal-Pathankot road for clues.
Reports say the same group of terrorists seized a taxi at Kathlana T-point on the Bamiyal-Pathankot road and shot dead the fleeing driver Ikagar Singh.
According to Singh’s family, he was repairing a tire at Kathlana T-point when the terrorists, who were hiding nearby, forced him to drive them toward Pathakot.
While they were approaching Kathlour bridge over Ravi river, Singh, in a desperate attempt to escape, rammed the taxi against a rock, got out of the car and started running before he was shot.
Ordeal of 3 kidnapped by terrorists
More soldiers would have been killed in Saturday’s attack but for the timely warning given to security agencies by Verma.
Talking from his hospital bed, Verma said that on Thursday he accompanied his friend former Gurudaspur Superintendent of Police Salwinder Singh and his old cook Madan Gopal, a Class IV staff of Punjab Police, on a trip to a shrine near the India-Pakistan border.
While they were returning home in the evening, four youths in army uniforms stopped their car at an isolated stretch at Kolian and overpowered them.
According to Gopal, they first dragged out Verma, who was behind the wheel, and dumped him inside the boot.
Then they tied up Singh and Gopal using ropes and clothes, ran a tape over their eyes and gagged them.
The car hijackers kept hitting the duo with rifles’ butts and shifting them between the front and rear seats as they moved towards their destination, the Pathankot Indian Air Force base.
Gopal said they were talking in a different language. Occasionally, the men said “Salam Alaikum.”
After driving for about 30 kilometers, the men dumped Singh and Gopal in a thick jungle and sped away with Verma still inside the boot.
Freeing themselves, the two walked for hours through the dense forest at night, crossed a canal and finally reached a village.
Singh contacted Gurdaspur SSP Gurpreet Singh and told him how he escaped the militants. They were taken to the Sadar police station in Pathankot.
What followed was more shocking than the ordeal Gopal had just undergone.
Gopal said he was tortured by police when he told them what happened. They did not believe even Singh until the terrorists struck at Pathankot air base.
Verma was lucky to be alive. After reaching village Tajpur, the hijackers dragged him from the boot to the front seat, slit his throat and left him for dead.
He, however, managed to stop the bleeding by pressing his cloth to the throat and ran to a Sikh shrine to use the phone to call his family who soon took him to a hospital. He also alerted security agencies about the militants in army uniform.