PATHANKOT - In a pre-dawn attack, a group of heavily-armed terrorists struck at the Indian Air Force base near Pakistan border, leading to a fierce gunbattle in which three security personnel were killed along with five attackers.

The dramatic assault on the Pathankot airbase was finally declared over Saturday evening 14 hours after militants hit.

At least five attackers also died in shootouts with security forces at Pathankot airbase in northern Punjab state, after gunmen suspected to be from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed group infiltrated the site at 3:30 am Saturday.

The assault - a rare targeting of an Indian military installation outside disputed Kashmir - comes a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years.

The possible involvement of Pakistan-based militants in the attack threatens to derail talks between the nuclear-armed rivals, who have fought three wars since independence in 1947.

“I congratulate our armed forces and other security forces on successfully neutralising all the five terrorists in ‘Pathankot Operation’,” Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted.

An Indian army source said “at least three security personnel have died” in the incident, with at least three others injured, adding that officers were still combing the base for residual explosives.

Modi, on a visit to the southern city of Mysore, responded to the attack on Twitter Saturday evening. “Enemies of humanity who can’t see India progress, such elements attacked in Pathankot but our security forces did not let them succeed,” he tweeted.

The Pathankot airbase houses dozens of fighter jets and is important for its strategic location about 50 kilometres from the Pakistan border.

“They are from Jaish, Jaish has claimed responsibility,” Indian army Lieutenant General Satish Dua told reporters of the attackers. AFP was not able to verify the alleged claim of responsibility.

Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is banned in Pakistan, fights against Indian rule in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

While Punjab has largely been spared such violence, however, it has not been immune.

In July, three gunmen said to be Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militants killed seven people, including four policemen, in an attack in the Sikh-majority state.

Modi’s December 25 visit to Lahore to meet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif indicated a potential thaw in tensions, and the foreign secretaries of both countries are to meet in Islamabad this month.

Pakistan opposition senator Sherry Rehman said the attack must not disrupt the planned dialogue. “#Pathankot is about derailing peace. Don’t let terror define our agenda. Pak-India talks must go on.” But Modi’s friendly outreach to Pakistan had prompted critics to warn of retaliation by militants.

“Our prime minister visited and after that the terrorists came here. They want friendship with Pakistan but look what they are doing to us,” said Ashok Kumar, 52, a shopkeeper in Pathankot.

A protest broke out on the road leading to Pathankot base in the early afternoon as angry residents burned effigies apparently intended to resemble Pakistani militants, an AFP journalist said.

DIALOGUE WITH PAKISTAN WILL NOT BE REVOKED: MINISTER

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the ‘resumed dialogue with Pakistan could not be revoked due to one attack’.

Talking to reporters in Delhi, BJP leader and Union Minister Prakash Javadekar batted for the continuation of talks with the neighbouring country, saying if there will be no talks on terror then it would not come down.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lahore initiative, Javadekar also said the onus is on Pakistan to follow the solemn promise given to India in 2004 that it would not allow its land to be used for terrorism. He said Pakistan would have to walk the talk on the issue of terrorism.

He supported Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s assertion that India wanted friendship with Pakistan, but would forcefully respond to any act of terrorism.