An operation to regain control of a Pakistani naval base assaulted by Taliban militants was completed after almost 16 hours of fighting yesterday, with up to 20 assailants holed up in a building, a security official said from inside the base.
“The operation is over. The main building has been cleared,” the official said. “For precaution, we are continuing to search around for any more terrorists, but the main operation is over.”
Pakistan’s naval air force headquarters was besieged by the Pakistani Taliban in the most audacious militant attack in the unstable, nuclear-armed country since the killing of late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
More than 20 Pakistani Taliban gunmen stormed the PNS Mehran base in the city of Karachi on Sunday, blowing up at least one aircraft and battling troops.
The assault casts fresh doubt on the Pakistani military’s ability to protect its bases following an attack 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 May 2.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is allied with al-Qaeda, said the attack was to avenge bin Laden’s death.
“It was the revenge for the martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Sporadic bouts of heavy gunfire erupted from the base as security forces battled to end the siege. Twelve military personnel were killed and 14 wounded in the assault that started at 10:30pm on Sunday, a navy spokesman said.
A security source said at least three militants had been killed.
The base is 24km from the Masroor Air Base, Pakistan’s largest and a possible depot for nuclear weapons.
“They were carrying guns, rocket-propelled grenades [RPG] and hand grenades. They hit the aircraft with an RPG,” another navy spokesman, Commander Salman Ali, said of the militants.
One P-3C Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft supplied by the US, was destroyed and another aircraft was damaged.
Media reports said the attackers made their way in through a sewer pipe, but that was not confirmed.
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.
On Monday, an Afghan TV station reported Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been killed in Pakistan, but the group denied it, saying he was safe and in Afghanistan.
The US 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 suspicions that militants may be receiving help from the security establishment.