ISLAMABAD – Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s statement regarding the involvement of Waziristan-linked militants in Minhas Airbase attack has surprised the relevant quarters at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), who have expressed ignorance of being privy to any such piece of information.

“Not to our knowledge if any person involved in Thursday’s attack has so far been traced and identified. The investigation just kicked off yesterday (Friday) and it’s next to impossible to trace high-value targets in just less than 24 hours and that too by an organisation that is not involved in the probe altogether,” credible officials at Air Headquarters told TheNation on Saturday during a background briefing.

“If people other than the PAF men say they have evidence and information about the trails and whereabouts of the terrorists involved in attacking one of our bases, we can only doubt this claim. According to our humble understanding, the PAF alone is involved in the investigation process which is at a very early stage at present.”

The PAF officials, however, confirmed that over a dozen suspects were rounded by the security agencies from Kamra, Attock and Peshawar and were being interrogated. Two mobile phones, a Blackberry and Nokia X 2 each, were recovered from the Minhas Base attack incident site, which were in the use of terrorists. The cell phones have been handed to an intelligence agency to get the call records, officials said.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik told media men Friday that some 10 suspects were detained by the security agencies in connection with Minhas Base attack while there was ‘confirmed’ evidence, according to Malik, that four of them acquired training in Waziristan region.

A few hours after the base attack incident, Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt had constituted a four-member Board of Inquiry headed by the Air Marshal Syed Athar Hussain Bokhari, appointed as the board’s President to probe the incident.

According to PAF Spokesperson Group Captain Tariq Mehmood, the president Board of Inquiry reached PAF Base Minhas and started investigations on Friday. Other board members are already at Minhas Base since the inquiry board’s constitution, he said.  Informed sources said, the inquiry team includes senior officials of PAF’s Air Intelligence and Provost branches.

As per standard procedure, the officials at Air Headquarters said, any PAF-led inquiry, upon its completion, is shared with the air chief first. If the inquiry is marked as internal or classified, it is not shared even with the Ministry of Defence or any other organisation other than the branches concerned within the PAF. In case the inquiry is mandated to be shared with the relevant authorities, it is forwarded to the defence ministry. The defence ministry, after following necessary official procedures, moves to share the probe with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs depending upon the scope and nature of the investigation, the PAF officers said.

“We fail to understand how a government functionary at the interior ministry could ‘jump’ to advanced stages of an inquiry which is still at the ‘embryonic’ stages and the interior ministry is not privy to it. “Such kind of media statements amount to interfering in the probe and influencing the investigation. We have requested the defence ministry to inform all the organisations at ministerial level not to issue media statements on such a sensitive subject and avoid jumping to conclusions before the PAF officially shares its findings.”

The officials said, the PAF inquiry team is probing the incident considering two aspects to determine either the attack took place due to: i) insiders involvement or ii) security lapse.

It is also being probed if adequate security steps had been taken in the backdrop of intelligence information containing high security alerts on potential terrorist attack on Minhas Base. The officials ruled out the possibility that the terrorists climbed through the base’s outer wall, saying the wall had barbed fencing. “Circumstantial evidence and interviews with the eyewitnesses established that the miscreants broke into the base through the outer gate facing Pind Salman Makhan, a village. It is yet to be determined if any insider guided them through,” officials said.

The PAF teams on Thursday had interviewed eyewitnesses and some PAF security officials before the probe was formally launched. These interviews and related background information would be formally made part of the Board of Inquiry’s probe, it was further learnt.