Karachi: Troops recaptured Pakistan’s naval air force headquarters on Monday after a 16-hour battle with Taliban gunmen who had stormed the facility in the most brazen attack since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
More than 20 terrorists assaulted the PNS Mehran base in the city of Karachi late on Sunday, blowing up at least one aircraft and laying siege to a main building in one of the most heavily guarded bases in the unstable, nuclear-armed country.
The Taliban attack casts fresh doubt on the military’s ability to protect its bases following a raid on the army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi in 2009, and is a further embarrassment following the surprise raid by US special forces on the al-Qaeda leader’s hideout north of Islamabad on 2 May.
“The operation is over. The main building has been cleared,” a security official said.
“As a precaution, we are continuing to search around for any more terrorists but the main operation is over.”
At least 12 military personnel were killed and 14 wounded in the assault that started at 10.30 pm on Sunday (1730 GMT), a navy spokesman said.
The Pakistan Taliban, which is allied with al-Qaeda, said it had staged the attack to avenge bin Laden’s death.
“It was the revenge of martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Guns, Rocket-Propelled Grenades
Security sources had earlier said the terrorists had used guns and grenades to storm the base, which is 24 km from the Masroor Air Base, Pakistan’s largest and a possible depot for nuclear weapons.
PNS Mehran is ringed with a concrete wall with about five feet of barbed wire on top. An aircraft, armed with rockets, hangs on show on a stand outside.
As troops wound down their assault, some Karachi residents said they could not believe security could have been so lax.
“If these people can just enter a military base like this, then how can any Pakistani feel safe?” asked Mazhar Iqbal, 28, engineering company administrator taking a lunch break in the shade outside the complex where a crowd had gathered.
“The government and the army are just corrupt. We need new leaders with a vision for Pakistan.”
Earlier, one security official said the militants had taken over a building in the base. Another official, contacted inside denied reports that hostages had been taken.
One P-3C Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft supplied by the United States, had been destroyed and another aircraft had been damaged.
Taliban Denies Mullah Omar Killed
Pakistan has faced a wave of assaults over the last few years, many of them claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
Others have been blamed on al-Qaeda-linked militant groups once nurtured by the Pakistani military and which have since slipped out of control.
The Taliban have stepped up attacks since bin Laden’s death, killing almost 80 people in a suicide bombing on a paramilitary academy and an assault on a US consular vehicle in Peshawar.
The group also claimed responsibility for a botched plot to bomb New York’s Times Square last year.
The Pakistani Taliban are led by Hakimullah Mehsud, whose fighters regularly clash with the army in the northwest, parts of which are bases for Afghan militants.
On Monday, an Afghan television station reported Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been killed in Pakistan, but the group denied it, saying he was safe and in Afghanistan.
The United States sees Pakistan as a key, if difficult, ally essential to its attempts to root out militant forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, however, sees militant groups as leverage to ward off the influence of its old enemy India in Afghanistan, and the discovery that bin Laden was living in the town of Abbottabad has revived suspicion that militants may be receiving help from the security establishment.
Pakistan says its senior leadership did not know of bin Laden’s whereabouts, but his presence -- and his killing -- has strained already fragile ties with the United States and deeply embarrassed Pakistan’s military.
The military, for its part, has come under intense domestic pressure for allowing five US helicopters to penetrate Pakistan’s airspace and kill the al-Qaeda leader.
Many US lawmakers are questioning whether to cut the billions of dollars of aid Pakistan receives to help root out militants.
On Monday, the Pakistani rupee fell to a record low against the US dollar, partly because of concerns that growing tension with the West could choke off much needed foreign aid.