NEW DELHI: As a five-member Pakistani probe team drove to Pathankot from Amritsar in bullet-proof cars their Indian hosts were eyeing reciprocity on Tuesday, including a proposal to seek access to Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, a prime suspect in the January terror attack on a major Indian Air Force base.
Reports said flying the team directly from New Delhi to Pathankot was ruled out over fears that an aerial view of the approach would expose too much to the visitors.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) thus entered the base through a specially-created entrance at the perimeter wall, which was breached by the heavily armed gunmen on the fateful night.
They climbed the wall before opening fire inside the base on January 2. The particularly sensitive technical areas of the base were blocked from view by white, red and yellow tents.
The Pakistani team “retraced the route of the terrorists” including the spots where they hijacked the car of a Punjab police officer and killed a taxi driver.
Reciprocity is being discussed. “We will ask for access to Masood Azhar,” Sharad Kumar, the chief of India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), told NDTV.
A formal request would be sent after the five-member Pakistani team returned home, he said.
NDTV quoted its sources in Pakistan as saying they don’t know if Azhar, 47, is still in the country. Last month, top sources in Islamabad said he was on the run.
Scores of protesters belonging to the Congress and the Aaam Aadmi Party (AAP) shouted slogans with black flags outside the base. Both political groups are contenders in the Punjab state polls due early next year. They were clearly using the occasion to score points against the ruling Akali Dal, an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr Modi has come in for criticism for allowing the team to Pathankot.
Leading the AAP protest at Pathankot, Delhi minister Kapil Mishra spoke of an “ISI-BJP coalition” and said: “The same people who have killed our people have come here…this is so shameful and disgusting.”
Responding to criticism, Amit Shah, the chief of the ruling BJP, reportedly said: “For the first time Pakistan has made serious effort towards investigation.”
Top NIA officials briefed visitors about the brazen attack in which seven security personnel were killed. At least four suspected terrorists believed to be from the Jaish-e-Mohammed were killed.
The team that arrived in Amritsar in the morning from Delhi in a special plane was taken to Pathankot by road to avoid giving it an aerial view of the strategic base.
The 118km journey was covered by the team which was ferried in six bullet-proof vehicles.
It is for the first time that a Pakistani team has visited India to ‘probe’ a terror case and has been given access to a strategic installation amidst strong criticism from opposition parties.
Most of the base was completely covered with white curtains to prevent a view of the valuable defence assets.
The JIT-NIA team spent about four hours in Pathankot after which they left for Amritsar. SWAT commandos of Punjab police provided them security during the visit.
The district administration tightened security around the Pathankot Air Force station as Congress and AAP had planned protests.
The administration had already deployed heavy police force in the city and along the Amritsar-Pathankot National Highway to provide traffic-free route to the JIT.