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India-Pakistan talks at risk as a fifth gunman is killed at air base

Pathankot, India: Renewed ties between India and Pakistan appear to be in jeopardy, as Indian security forces battle for the third day to clear out militants who attacked an air base, killing seven soldiers.

The foreign secretaries of the nuclear-armed neighbours are due to meet for talks on January 15, building on a thaw in relations after a surprise visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif last month.

But an Indian government official said India was now considering whether to go ahead with the talks or not, and that a final decision would be taken once the operations to secure the Pathankot Air Force base in Punjab state were over.

The government official, who requested anonymity, said it could take another 48 hours for the base to be secured, and by then the government hoped to have more information about the attackers and what links they may have to Pakistan, if any.

On Monday, the United Jihad Council, an alliance of more than a dozen pro-Pakistan militant groups based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, claimed responsibility for the air base attack, according to a statement from the group's spokesman.

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"The attack is a message by Mujahideen (militants) that no sensitive installation of India is out of our reach," said UJC spokesman Syed Sadaqat Hussain in a statement, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

The attack on the base, which started before dawn on Saturday, is a rare targeting of an Indian military installation outside of the disputed Kashmir region.

Indian security forces have killed five militants so far in the attack, said Major General Dushyant Singh, of India's counter-terrorism force, the National Security Guard.

But gunfire could still be heard at the base on the third day of operations. It was unclear how many militants remained at large, if any.

As well as the seven Indian security personnel killed, 22 had been wounded.

"Operations will continue to be conducted until we can render the base fully safe," said Singh.

Pakistan has condemned the attack and said it wanted to build on the goodwill created by the impromptu meeting between Modi and Sharif last month.

Indian consulate in Afghanistan attacked

Separately, late on Sunday, the Indian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif came under attack.

Afghan special forces fought with insurgents who were barricaded in a house near the consulate on Monday.

As the battle stretched into the afternoon, soldiers entered the building, a large structure formerly used as an office by US development agency USAID, where between four and six attackers had locked themselves inside a safe room.

"The area is sealed off and we are proceeding cautiously and making all possible efforts to protect the lives of those in the area. The attackers will be killed," the provincial governor, Atta Mohammad Noor, said on his Facebook page.

Gunfire rang out as a helicopters circled overhead in a residential area of the city, in Balkh province, bordering Uzbekistan.

At least four civilians and six security force personnel were wounded but the Indian ambassador said all the consulate staff were safe. 

Noor blamed "enemies of peace and stability" for the attack, which came amid renewed efforts to lower tension between India and its Pakistan and restart peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Reuters 

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