08/01/2016 8:24 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:42 PM IST

Pathankot Attack: Maulana Masood Azhar, Chief Of Terror Group Jaish-e-Mohammad, Identified As Handler

** FILE ** Maulana Masood Azhar, the imprisoned leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed, which was outlawed by Pakistan's government and declared terrorist group by the U.S. government, waves from a police van at the High Court in Lahore in this March 22, 2002 file photo. An appeals court in Lahore Saturday, Dec. 14, 2002 ordered the head of one of the country's main Islamic militant groups released from house arrest, adding to a growing list of radicals freed in recent months. (AP Photo/str, File)

Maulana Masood Azhar, the chief of Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammad, and his brother Abdul Rauf Asghar, have been identified by Indian security officials as two of the four people who were acting as the handlers for the terrorists who attacked a heavily-guarded air force base in Punjab's Pathankot, 25 km from India's border with Pakistan.

Incidentally, Azhar is also the mastermind behind the IC-814 hijack case. An Indian Airlines Flight en route from Kathmandu in Nepal to New Delhi on 24 December 1999 was hijacked by the terror group Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The hijackers forced the aircraft to land in Kandahar, Afghanistan and demanded that three militants -- Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Azhar be released from prison. The eight-day crisis ended after the release of the three hardcore militants, including Azhar, in exchange for the freedom of passengers and crew members who were held hostage

Security agencies claimed to have found evidence that the conspiracy was hatched near Lahore, a top government source told PTI.

Also Read: First Take Action Then We'll Talk, Says India To Pakistan

Yesterday, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup was cautious in his response to reporters about the fate of the Foreign Secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan in Islamabad on January 15. He did not rule out India's participation, but he said that New Delhi would keenly observe whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif holds good on his promise of "prompt and decisive" action.

Swarup said that Islamabad had eight days to act on actionable intelligence provided by New Delhi before the Indo-Pak talks. "The ball is in Pakistan's court," said Swraup. "The immediate issue is Pakistan's response."

Indian agencies identified Azhar, Rauf, Ashfaq and Kashim, PTI reported. Asked as to what action India wants Pakistan to take against these four, sources told PTI they have to be arrested and handed to New Delhi so that they could be questioned in the ongoing investigation.

Security agencies are also looking for a connection between the strike at the Indian consulate in Afghanistan last week and the Pathankot attacks. Terrorists who attacked the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif allegedly left a graffiti on the wall written in their own blood stating that they’ve avenged the death of Afzal Guru, who was hanged in 2013 for planning the 13 December, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Guru had possible links to Jaish-e-Mohammed that intelligence services believe is responsible for the deadly attack on Pathankot.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had recently said there are indications that some of the materials used by the terrorists were made in Pakistan.

Six terrorists, who had sneaked into the country from Indo-Pak border in Pakistan, had attacked Indian Air Force base in Pathankot during the intervening night of January 1 and 2. They were killed during a counter-operation by Indian forces that lasted for about three days in which seven security personnel lost their lives.

An NIA team visited several spots and continued to question several eyewitnesses including senior police officers. There was a possibility that some of the eyewitnesses could be brought to Delhi for some scientific tests including polygraph test (lie detector test).

As it recorded the statements of Superintendent of Police-rank officer Salwinder Singh and two others who were kidnapped by the terrorists, the NIA team visited the border village where the terrorists could have possibly entered and spoke to the villagers and BSF personnel.

A team of NIA, central agency created after Mumbai attack to probe terror-related cases, quizzed Salwinder Singh in Pathankot which showed there were some discrepancies in his statement which was being looked into.

The agency had taken Singh to the places he had visited before he, along with his jeweller friend Rajesh Kumar Verma and cook Madan Gopal, was kidnapped. Singh, who is facing charges of alleged breach of discipline and was transferred recently as Assistant Commandant of 75th battalion of Punjab Armed Police, had claimed that he was returning from a temple at 11 PM when terrorists kidnapped him.

The NIA also recorded the statement of caretaker of the shrine who is believed to have told him that Madan Gopal and Verma had come during day time on December 31 only to return in the evening.

The NIA plans to question Verma and Gopal again as there were some discrepancies in the account of the kidnapping incident that preceded last Saturday's terror attack at Pathankot air force base given by all the three.

(Inputs from PTI)

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