Seven dead after gunmen attack Punjab town

Gunmen dressed in Indian army uniforms shot at a moving bus and at people near Dinanagar's bus station and at a community health centre before laying siege to the police station, reports Samanth Subramanian.

Indian police take position as their colleagues look on during a gunfight in the town of Dinanagar in the Punjab district of Gurdaspur on July 27, 2015. Munish Sharma/Reuters
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NEW DELHI // A 12-hour firefight between Indian security forces and three gunmen in a town near the Pakistan border on Monday ended with all of the attackers dead, along with at least four policemen and three civilians.

India put its army on high alert along its border after the gunmen began their attack in the town of Dinanagar, in Gurdaspur district of Punjab state. Dinanagar is 20 kilometres from the India-Pakistan border and has near several major army establishments nearby.

The attack, which follows a series of cross-border firing incidents in neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir state in the past week, further jeopardises the recently revived prospect of peace talks between the two countries.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Indian government suggested that the gunmen came from Pakistan.

Jitendra Singh, a junior minister attached to prime minister Narendra Modi’s office, said the attack was an example of Pakistani cross-border terrorism, of the kind frequently witnessed in Kashmir.

“There have been reports of Pakistan infiltration earlier and cross-border mischief in this area,” he said.

India’s home minister, -Rajnath Singh, said he had ordered the head of the Border Security Force “to step up the vigil”.

“We want peace with Pakistan, but not at the cost of national honour,” Mr Singh said.

“I can’t understand why time and again cross-border terror incidents are taking place when we want good relations with our neighbour.

“We will not be the first to strike, but if we are hit, we will give a befitting reply.”

Pakistan denied any involvement in the attack.

The attack began before dawn when three men dressed in Indian Army uniforms snatched a white sedan from a roadside restaurant near the border.

They shot at a moving bus and at people near the bus station and at a community health centre in the town before targeting the police station.

“We didn’t realise when they came and when they started shooting. They were wearing army uniforms,” a policeman told the NDTV news channel. “I was hit on the shoulder. They kept firing every five minutes.”

A policeman and three other people were killed at the community health centre. Baljit Singh, the superintendent of police for Gurdaspur, was killed in the police station, along with another policeman.

Around the same time, five bombs were found on a nearby stretch of railway track and were defused by security forces.

The army rushed troops from its special forces division to Dinanagar from Jammu and Kashmir, while Mr Modi held an emergency meeting with top members of his cabinet to discuss the situation.

The siege continued through the day. More than 300 soldiers and policemen surrounded the police station, and powerful weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket launchers was brought in. But these were not used until late in the day.

The aim was “to capture one or more terrorists alive”, a police officer told the Ians news agency.

The attack comes just weeks after relations between India and Pakistan appeared to thaw at a meeting between Mr Modi and the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa on July 10.

In a statement issued after that meeting, Mr Modi and Mr Sharif “condemned terrorism in all its forms and agreed to cooperate with each other to eliminate this menace.” The statement made no reference to Kashmir, the region over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars.

Four days after the meeting, however, Sartaj Aziz, Mr Sharif’s national security adviser, told reporters that India and Pakistan could have no dialogue without Kashmir on the agenda.

Mr Aziz also seemed to recant on the statement’s promise to cooperate over terrorism. For six years, India has pressed Pakistan to put on trial some of its citizens who have been suspected of organising the terrorist attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008, that killed more than 160 people.

The trial in Pakistan has repeatedly stalled because of adjournments, changes in trial venues, and changes in judges. Mr Aziz said in the same post-Ufa statement: “We need more information and evidence to conclude the trial.”

Cross-border attacks are common in Jammu and Kashmir, but unheard of in Punjab since 1993, when the 460-kilometre border was fenced off with barbed wire and floodlit.

The majority Sikh state has been largely peaceful since the early 1990s, when a separatist insurgency demanding an independent Khalistan state was quelled.

But India has, in the past, accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of fomenting unrest among pro-Khalistan factions in Punjab.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae