WEB DESK: Explosions and gunfire rang out Sunday as militants attempted to storm the Indian diplomatic mission in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif city, following a deadly assault on an air base in India near the Pakistan border.
The attacks threaten to derail Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bold diplomatic outreach to arch-rival Pakistan following his first official visit to Afghanistan.
No group has so far claimed responsibility for the raid on the consulate in the northern Afghan city, the latest in a series of assaults on Indian installations in the country.
“We are being attacked,” an Indian consulate official told AFP by telephone from inside the heavily-guarded compound.
“Fighting is still going on.”
The official, who was hunkered down in a secure area within the complex, said all consulate employees were safe and accounted for.
Loud grenade explosions and gunshots were heard as an unknown number of assailants mounted the attack from a building close to the consulate, prompting Afghan forces to cordon off the area.
“The area is completely blocked by our forces,” said Shir Jan Durrani, a police spokesman in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of the relatively tranquil province of Balkh.
“The attackers are holed up inside the building. We are cautiously conducting our clearance operation to avoid any civilian casualties.”
Vikas Swarup, an Indian foreign ministry spokesman, told AFP that no Indian casualties had been reported so far.
The attack comes as Indian forces were again scrambled Sunday following a deadly assault by suspected Islamist insurgents on an air force base in the northern Indian state of Punjab.
Seven soldiers and six attackers were confirmed killed in the raid on the Pathankot base, which triggered a 14-hour gun battle Saturday.
Officials suspect the gunmen belong to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that staged the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament which brought the two countries to the brink of war.
The attack — a rare targeting of an Indian military installation outside disputed Kashmir — threatens to undermine the fragile peace process between the nuclear-armed rivals.
– ‘Proxy war’ –
The violence comes a week after Modi paid a surprise visit to Pakistan, the first by an Indian premier in 11 years.
The visit immediately followed a whirlwind tour of Kabul, where Modi inaugurated an Indian-built parliament complex and gifted three Russian-made helicopters to the Afghan government.
India has been a key supporter of Kabul’s post-Taliban government, and analysts have often pointed to the threat of a “proxy war” in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan.
Pakistan has long been accused of assisting the insurgents, especially with attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan.
The latest unrest comes amid a renewed international push to revive peace talks with the resurgent militant movement.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to hold a first round of dialogue between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China on January 11 to lay out a comprehensive roadmap for peace.
Pakistan, which wields considerable influence over the Taliban, hosted a milestone first round of talks in July but the negotiations stalled when the insurgents belatedly confirmed the death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.
The attack on the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif marks the latest attack on an Indian target in Afghanistan.
In 2008, a car bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabul killed 60 people and the embassy was again hit by a suicide strike in 2009.
Nine civilians, including seven children, were killed in August 2013 when suicide bombers targeted the Indian consulate in the main eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
And in May 2014, gunmen launched a pre-dawn attack on India’s consulate in the main western Afghan city of Herat before being repelled by security forces.