NEW DELHI, September 20 – Armed police launched an intense manhunt across the Indian capital Saturday for two suspected Islamic militants who escaped a dramatic gunbattle in which two militants and a police officer died.
The two militants killed during Friday’s shootout in a Muslim area of New Delhi included the leader of a shadowy group responsible for a series of deadly bomb attacks including ones in the city a week ago, officials said.
The hour-long gunbattle erupted around an apartment in Jamia Nagar, in the south of the capital, when police acting on a tip-off discovered a group of around five armed men holed up in a building in a maze of narrow streets.
Police Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma later died in hospital after succumbing to three gunshot wounds, police commissioner Y.S. Dadhwal said.
He said one of the dead militants was Indian Mujahideen leader "Atif alias Bashir" who was "linked with the blasts all over the country."
Over the past five months, serial bombings claimed by the Indian Mujahideen have hit the cities of Jaipur, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and New Delhi — leaving at least 130 dead and many more wounded.
Dadhwal told reporters that one militant had been placed in custody after the shootout while two others managed to flee.
Scores of armed police officers on Saturday fanned out across New Delhi and adjoining cities for the two missing militants.
"It is one of the most intense manhunts we have launched in recent days and we are hopeful of a result," a senior anti-terrorism officer told AFP.
Meanwhile police and the prime minister paid tribute to the slain inspector.
"He was one of India’s most-decorated police officers… It’s a sad day for us," Dadhwal said of 41-year-old inspector, credited with gunning down 35 militants and arresting 80 others.
"Sharma was an exceptionally brave officer. He had shown exceptional courage throughout his career and he was an inspiration for our security forces in his life and will continue to inspire them after this demise too," Singh said in a letter to Maya Sharma, the officer’s widow.
Indian Mujahideen was blamed for a series of blasts in busy shopping areas of New Delhi last Saturday that left 22 dead and around 100 wounded.
The recent wave of nationwide attacks has forced the government to confront the emergence of an indigenous Muslim militancy.
The dramatic shoot-out in India’s capital came a day after the government unveiled new security measures designed to tackle what premier Singh said were "vast gaps" in intelligence gathering on militants.
The cabinet approved proposals to hire 7,000 additional policemen in New Delhi, install surveillance cameras in busy areas and create a research wing in its intelligence agency.
Singh said India had to face up to the growing involvement of home-grown militants in attacks.
In the past, India has focused its limited counter-terrorist and intelligence resources on neighbouring Pakistan, which it accuses of orchestrating militant attacks.
Hindu-majority India has around 140 million Muslims. While tensions have always existed, India’s Muslims have in the past largely resisted organised militancy.
Indian Muslim leaders, however, have complained their community was being victimised by security forces.