NEW DELHI — Fresh gunshots were heard from inside an air force base in northern India on Monday as troops continued to try to clear the area of militants for a third day.
At least seven troops and five militants have been killed in the fighting. Authorities said it was not immediately clear how many militants were still hiding inside the compound. Air force helicopters flew all night to assist the operations on the ground in Pathankot, a front-line air base near India’s border with Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting with top security and diplomatic officials late Sunday to discuss the situation, even as criticism mounted that his surprise visit to Pakistan last week had yielded few positive results.
On Monday, a militant group, the United Jihad Council, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement to a news agency in Kashmir, the site of territorial disputes between India and Pakistan. The council is a coalition of Kashmiri militant groups that have been fighting Indian rule in the Himalayan region. New Delhi accuses Islamabad of supporting insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan denies the charge.
The battle began early Saturday after armed men scaled the compound wall and entered the base. But even after the operation was declared successful after nearly 14 hours of fighting, efforts continued to find more militants hiding inside the sprawling base.
Maj. Gen. Dushyant Singh of the commando force National Security Guard told reporters, “The operation to eliminate possibly two more terrorists is in the final stages.” An army official said the militants were hiding in a two-story residence inside the air base and that troops were working to clear the building.
Television images showed hundreds of citizens lining up Monday in different cities to pay homage to the dead commandos as their bodies were flown home from Pathankot for a funeral.
As explosions were heard late Sunday from the base, some reports said the two remaining militants had been killed. Officials did not confirm the reports, however.
“The operations are at a mature stage, but the confirmation will only be made when we physically see the body of the terrorists,” said Anil Khosla, the air force’s director general of air operations.
The attack came a week after Modi met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during an unannounced stopover in Lahore on his way back from Kabul. Many analysts termed the meeting — the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 12 years — a “masterstroke” aimed at improving the frayed ties between the two nations.
But now critics are questioning why Modi’s diplomatic gesture has not borne fruit.
On Saturday and Sunday, many Indians reproduced old tweets from Modi in which he questioned the policy of conducting dialogue with Pakistan amid terrorist attacks.
Randeep Singh Surjewala, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, said he wants to remind Indians that Modi “used to say he will show red eyes to Pakistan.”
“We don’t want him to show red eyes, but we want him to take firm action to protect the life of citizens of this country,” Surjewala said.
Since independence from British rule in 1947, the two nations have fought three wars. India routinely accuses Islamist groups in Pakistan of fomenting terror across the border. But no official has directly blamed Pakistan for the Pathankot attack. In a tweet on Saturday, Modi blamed the “enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress.”
Pakistan’s government condemned the attack and said it was committed to partnering with India to eradicate terrorism.
India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, met Sunday with former diplomats to formulate the government’s strategy of engagement with Pakistan in the coming weeks.
A senior minister in the government, Prakash Javadekar, said the process of talks with Pakistan “cannot be destroyed” because of one attack.“Because of early action, the terrorists were unable to move to their likely intended aim but were contained in an area of a growth of trees and shrubs,” Rajiv Mehrishi, a Home Ministry official, told reporters in New Delhi. He added that the militants wanted to cause “damage to the assets of the air force.”
After an intelligence alert about an imminent terrorist threat to the base, New Delhi sent commandos to Pathankot on Friday. Aerial surveillance detected the militants entering the compound, and the fighting began.
Hours after the gun battle resumed Sunday, Modi drew much criticism on social media when his Twitter handle posted tweets about the benefits of yoga and traditional Indian medicine, quoting from his speech at a conference in the southern state of Karnataka.