By Channi Anand ,AP
PATHANKOT, India — Suspected militants entered an Indian air force base near the border with Pakistan on Saturday and exchanged fire with security forces for hours, leaving at least four gunmen and two Indian soldiers dead, officials and news reports said.
The attack, which was seen as an attempt to undo recent progress made in the relationship between rivals India and Pakistan, began a couple of hours before dawn, and by late morning it appeared that the violence had ended with the killing of the gunmen by Indian forces. But just two hours later, fresh gunfire erupted.
A helicopter could be seen at around noon firing at an area inside the Pathankot air force base, located about 430 kilometers (267 miles) north of New Delhi. Shots could also be heard from inside the base.
The defense ministry said just after 5 p.m. that operations at the base were ongoing, 14 hours after the attack began. It added that there had been intelligence reports about a likely terror attack on military installations in Pathankot, and that the air force had been prepared to thwart any attackers.
“Due to the effective preparation and coordinated efforts by all the security agencies a group of terrorists were detected by the aerial surveillance platforms as soon as they entered the Air Force Station at Pathankot,” the ministry said in a statement.
It was unclear how many gunmen were still fighting security troops at the base Saturday evening.
The attack began when at least four gunmen entered the living quarters of the base shortly after 3 a.m., but they were unable to penetrate the area where fighter helicopters and other military equipment are kept, said air force spokeswoman Rochelle D’Silva.
Press Trust of India news agency cited police as saying that four attackers were killed following an hourslong gunbattle, and that police started an operation to clear a wider area of other possible intruders.
The attack was viewed by many in India as an attempt to unravel recent progress in the country’s relationship with archrival Pakistan. The violence came just a week after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an unannounced visit to Pakistan to meet with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif.
Modi’s visit was seen as a potential sign of thawing relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. The two leaders also held an unscheduled meeting at the Paris climate change talks last month.
“These kinds of attacks are nothing new and have generally been the outcome of the dispute of India and Pakistan over Kashmir,” said Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist at Central University in Indian Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, but is claimed in its entirety by both.