NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Doubts have been raised about police reports of a foiled attack on India's capital blamed on Pakistani militants, with newspapers wondering if the whole episode might have been staged.
The controversy is an unwelcome distraction from India's efforts to bring to book the Pakistanis it blames for November's attack on Mumbai.
Police on Sunday said they killed two militants after a car chase in Noida city on the outskirts of New Delhi on the eve of Republic Day. AK-47 rifles, grenades and a Pakistani passport were recovered, according to officials.
But the story sounded to some newspapers too good to be true. The militants not only conveniently carried Pakistani identification, they also asked for directions outside Delhi with an AK-47 poking out of a bag, and then confessed before dying.
The incident came amid heightened tension with Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks late last year. A brutal attack on the capital could have the potential to push the two nuclear-armed neighbours closer to the brink.
"(The doubts) hurt India's credibility more now than ever before, especially as India is now under international focus and trying to tell the world to act against terrorism after attacks on Mumbai," retired Major-General Ashok Mehta told Reuters.
Indians even have a phrase for these kind of suspicions -- "fake encounters" -- when police are accused of killing suspected criminals in cold blood and passing the incidents off as gunbattles to reap either fame or cash rewards.
"Doubts have always persisted about fake encounters and killings in India, but everything looks suspicious in this case," Mehta, a security analyst, said.
Surprisingly, India's foreign ministry and home ministry have both been silent on the case.
The doubts highlight a problem for India -- that many people doubt the credibility of police accounts just as the Indian government is trying to show the world that Pakistan is behind militant attacks on its soil.
While similar incidents have been reported on the eve of many Republic Days, they did not have the same impact pre-Mumbai.
Now the stakes are higher, given the potential of incidents like these, real or fake, to raise diplomatic tension.
One newspaper expressed doubts about the timing of Sunday's incident.
"We would have been a wee bit surprised had the police not produced some 'terrorists' - slain or alive -- in the run-up to the Republic Day," the Mail Today said.
"For the past many years encounters and arrests have been regular as the official ceremony on these occasions."
The Times of India raised several suspicions, from conflicting police versions to the fact two previous encounters had taken place in the same isolated spot in less than 10 months.
The militants not only advertised their intentions with a gun-laden bag, they also asked for directions from a tea-seller -- who just happened to be a police informer, the paper said.
Uttar Pradesh police said they were still investigating.
"People are free to interpret and react to the situation in their own ways," senior Uttar Pradesh police officer Rajiv Krishna said, when asked about reports of a fake encounter.
Indian security experts say there is no doubt that Indian police are dealing every week with militant cells.
There have been a string of bomb attacks on cities in the past two years, killing hundreds of people, including the most infamous -- when gunmen killed 179 in coordinated raids on India's financial hub.
The Indian government and many experts say there is ample evidence that Pakistan is communicating with many of these cells. Western allies such as the United States are convinced of the evidence that Pakistani militants were involved in Mumbai.
But while the threat is real, doubts about the police will not go away.
"The problem is credibility of the police and the fact that nobody believes the police these days," Julio Ribeiro, former Mumbai police commissioner, told Reuters.
India's human rights commission is investigating a previous gunbattle in New Delhi last year against two suspected Islamist militants after media alleged it could have been faked.
In Sunday's incident, the police came from one of India's most lawless and corrupt states, Uttar Pradesh.
"These encounters are very murky," said Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute for Conflict Management.
"The fact that it happened in UP raises more doubts, but that doesn't mean it was a fake encounter."
Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar