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In India, New Year Begins With Brazen Assault Near Border With Pakistan


This new year had begun with some hope for calm in the relationship between India and Pakistan. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, just made a high-profile visit to Pakistan, bringing along a new peace initiative. But now you have to wonder if this is all in jeopardy.


That's because heavily-armed gunmen believed to be from Pakistan have carried out an audacious assault on an Indian airbase. There have been prolonged gun battles over two days. Four attackers and seven Indian security personnel have been killed.

GREENE: And we should say this is not over. There is still an operation underway trying to flush out the remaining gunmen at this military base. Let's turn to NPR's Julie McCarthy, who joins us from New Delhi. Julie, good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning. Happy New Year.

GREENE: Well, happy New Year to you, too. Can you tell us what's happening here? I mean, we're in day three now of this operation to clear this Indian air force base. I mean, I'm wondering who these suspected militants are and how they got onto a military base, which, you know, you could imagine is pretty heavily fortified?

MCCARTHY: Exactly, that's what investigators want to know, too. India's security officials say that the gunmen were disguised in Indian army uniforms when they stole onto the Pathankot airbase. Indian authorities suspect the gunmen are Islamist militants from the Pakistani-based outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, who are also blamed for attacking the Indian Parliament in 2001. Well, now they've snuck on to one of the most strategically-important forward bases in India, where an army division and a fleet of fighter jets are stationed.

GREENE: And so the Indian government is pretty certain that it's this Islamist group from Pakistan, these militants?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, evidently they - there are phone intercepts. And Indian officials say that the gunmen made calls on stolen phones that were traced back to Pakistan and handlers. And one man is reported to have called his mother to say he was on a suicide mission, so there was intelligence. And officials say it helped prevent a much worse outcome. But that said, David, seven Indian security forces - that's the highest total in years of an incursion of this kind - were killed during this assault that's mired in confusion. On Saturday night, the operation was declared over. But by Sunday, two more militants emerged from hiding and another firefight broke out.

GREENE: Well, Julie, that all sounds like a huge embarrassment for the Indian government.

MCCARTHY: Well, yes, there are questions being raised about how this counteroffensive was handled, why it's taken so long to take back control and why India claimed success so early. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to answer for all of that.

GREENE: And Julie, if you can, just set this in the larger context. I mean, you have India, Pakistan - people have heard about the long-running tensions between these two countries - both with nuclear capabilities. I mean, what does this mean that a militant group from Pakistan could come in and lay siege to an Indian airbase?

MCCARTHY: Well, really, I mean, most practically, what it normally means is any kind of end to a dialogue or a peace initiative. And that's exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India tried to do when he showed up 10 days ago in Pakistan to meet with Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani leader. It was the first time in over a decade that an Indian leader had traveled to Pakistan, and he won't want that wasted. So what you're hearing here is none of the condemnation of Pakistan that you normally hear. Instead, India is talking about discussing how Pakistan, who was also condemned this attack, can crack down on Jaish-e-Mohammed. And that sort of restraint represents a change. And if it holds, the new year would have begun on a very different, perhaps hopeful note.

GREENE: All right, we've been speaking to NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi, who's been covering the siege of an Indian airbase that's still ongoing. Julie, thanks a lot.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.