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News analysis

Air base attack puts damper on peace talks

Jan 15 meeting now in doubt as Indian officials pin blame on terrorists from Pakistan

The attack on an Indian Air Force base by terrorists that Indian officials said came from Pakistan would put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's latest efforts to reach out to Pakistan, putting a damper on planned talks between top diplomats later this month, said analysts.

Terrorists wearing army fatigues and using a stolen police car stormed the air force base in Pathankot in Punjab state on Saturday in an attack that Mr Modi said was carried out by "enemies of humanity" who could not endure India's progress.

Four terrorists were killed on Saturday before they could get to the area where helicopters and planes were kept, said Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi.

Operations continued for a second day yesterday against two terrorists who escaped detection. They were reportedly killed inside the base, which is near the Pakistan border. The militant attack has killed seven military personnel and wounded another 20.

 

The Indian authorities pinned the blame on the Jaish-e-Mohammed, a banned group based in Pakistan.

"This is an attack from Pakistan. This is the second or third time that Punjab has been targeted," said Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal at a press conference.

India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars, resumed peace talks last month after a three-year break, with Mr Modi pulling off a surprise visit to Pakistan on Christmas Day, the first by an Indian Prime Minister in over a decade.

The two sides had agreed that their foreign secretaries would meet and give shape to the talks on Jan 15 in Islamabad.

The future of the peace talks was put in doubt following the Pathankot attack, with analysts noting that domestic pressure would now increase on Mr Modi to justify his latest peace initiative with Pakistan.

Hawks in India have criticised Mr Modi for his outreach efforts, with many questioning if talks should continue.

"We will naturally have to proceed with much greater caution till we are persuaded that the infrastructure of terror is being dismantled," Mr G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian diplomat, told The Straits Times prior to a meeting of a group of retired diplomats with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to discuss India's Pakistan policy.

Former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh said Mr Modi was "in a fix". "He is now faced with the choice of going back to a hardline position or pursuing a dialogue. Carrying on with a dialogue while such attacks take place will be difficult to justify to the Indian public. Yet to call it off would be a knee-jerk reaction," he said.

Ties between India and Pakistan remain fraught with tension even during the best of times. Attempts for a long-lasting peace have failed with talks always interrupted by a terror incident or by firing across the border. In 2008, 166 people were killed in the Mumbai attacks by Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, which derailed the peace process for years.

Yesterday, Delhi was put on high alert, as were several other cities, following the Pathankot attack. There was also a bomb scare at the railway station in Delhi.

With the fresh peace initiative in the balance, the federal government has responded cautiously to the attack, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh restricting comments to saluting the security forces for their bravery.

Analysts said the government would most likely take time to assess its next step in the peace process following the terror attack.

"This kind of thing happens again and again," said Dr Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. "They (Indian leadership) are sitting on the fence. But they should come out with a statement saying this cannot happen or say talks will go ahead despite the attack."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Air base attack puts damper on peace talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe