Heavily armed men dressed in military fatigues stormed a police station on Monday in India’s northern frontier state of Punjab close to the border with Pakistan, killing six people and wounding several others.
Armed police exchanged fire with the attackers, who remained holed up in the police station in Gurdaspur district 10 hours after the assault began at about 5 a.m. (2330 GMT Sunday), officials said.
There was a lull in shooting by early afternoon, a Reuters witness said, after security forces in red and black turbans surrounded the building in the town of Dinanagar, about 15 km (10 miles) from the international border. Soldiers were also deployed, at least one of them armed with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher.
“We have been able to limit (the attack). They are surrounded, they are holed up in the police station. We are on top of the situation,” said Harcharan Bains, an adviser to Punjab’s chief minister.
A local police chief was among those killed. Police sources said the attackers entered India from Pakistan two days ago in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, a short distance to the north.
Jitendra Singh, a junior minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office, said he did not rule out Pakistan’s involvement.
“There have also been earlier reports of Pakistan infiltration and cross-border mischief in this area,” said Singh, whose constituency in the Jammu region borders Gurdaspur.
RARE ATTACK IN PUNJAB
Attacks on security installations by militants dressed as soldiers or police are common in Jammu, but Monday’s was the first such assault in Punjab in 13 years, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which tracks militant violence.
Now nuclear-armed rivals, India and Pakistan have fought three wars since both nations gained independence in 1947.
Pakistan has denied any involvement in insurgencies in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and Islamabad’s foreign office said it was not aware of any reports that the people involved in Monday’s attack were Pakistani.
India’s Federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh said he had spoken to the head of India’s Border Security Force and “instructed him to step up the vigil” on the border.
“The situation is under control,” Singh told reporters.
Five bombs were also found on a railway track in the state, in a possible sign of an attempted coordinated attack.
The dead included four civilians and two policemen, said H.S. Dhillon, a senior Punjab police officer.
Some others were wounded, he said. A suspected militant was also killed, but his body had not yet been recovered, according to another official.
The group of about five attackers came in a white Maruti-Suzuki car, dressed in army uniforms, said Bains, the adviser to the Punjab chief minister.
The attackers took the vehicle at gunpoint from a roadside restaurant, another local politician told Reuters.
Television footage showed the car with its windshield peppered with bullet holes, and broken glass and bullet casings on the passenger seat. What appeared to be improvised explosive devices on railway tracks were also shown.
India fought a Sikh insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s that peaked with the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
That attack was in retaliation for her decision to order the army to flush out militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of the Sikh community. Sikh militant groups were demanding an independent homeland for minority Sikhs at the time, which they called Khalistan.
“The remnants of that movement are still being hosted and protected in Pakistan. That is who I assume would be behind it eventually. Directions would have come from there,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. Hasan Askar Rizvi, a political analyst in Pakistan, rejected Sahni’s theory.
“There is no information on this side to show support of Khalistan movement,” he said. “You can’t support a movement that doesn’t exist on the ground (in India).”
Earlier this month, Modi met his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif and agreed top security officers from the two countries would meet to discuss counter-terrorism. Modi also agreed to visit Pakistan next year.
On Monday, India’s opposition Congress party accused Modi of appeasing Pakistan and there were rowdy scenes in India’s parliament, where members of the lower house demanded a resolution condemning the attack.
(Additional reporting by Krishna Das, Andrew MacAskill, Krista Mahr and Frank Jack Daniel in New Delhi; Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar; Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by Douglas Busvine, Frank Jack Daniel, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Mike Collett-White)