KARACHI: Twenty-eight people were killed as Pakistan’s military fought an all-night battle with Taliban gunmen who besieged Karachi airport armed with rocket launchers and suicide vests, leaving a nascent peace process in tatters.
Ten militants were among the dead, officials said, as Pakistan’s biggest city witnessed a return of the kind of spectacular offensive waged before by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) during an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives since 2007.
The attack at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport began just before midnight Sunday. At around dawn, the military said that all 10 attackers had been killed.
Some of the gunmen were dressed in army uniform, as authorities put their mangled bodies, assault rifles, grenades and rocket launchers on show for the press. At least three blew up their suicide vests, witnesses said, and one severed head formed part of the grisly display.
But after authorities initially declared the airport cleared around dawn, an AFP reporter witnessed fresh gunfire from inside the airport – where explosions and fires had erupted during the night – prompting security forces to relaunch the operation.
“The attack is over and we have cleared the area of all militants,” a spokesman for the paramilitary Rangers, Sibtain Rizvi, told reporters later after nearly 12 hours of fighting in all.
The bodies of the 18 victims of the Taliban assault – including 11 airport security guards and four workers from Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) – were taken to a Karachi hospital where another 26 wounded people were being treated, a hospital official said.
After the siege, some 50 Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and PIA employees who had been trapped inside the building all night were seen leaving.
PIA spokesman Mashud Tajwar said no airline passengers were caught up in the incident.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office issued a statement “commending the bravery” of security forces and saying normal flight operations would resume in the afternoon, while Afghan President Hamid Karzai – who is battling his own Taliban insurgency – condemned the attack in a statement.
The TTP said the brazen attack was its latest revenge for its late leader Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike in November.
TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the Pakistani government had used peace talks as a ruse, and promised more attacks to come.
“Pakistan used peace talks as a tool of war,” he said, slamming recent air strikes in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
A statement later issued by the group said the targets were selected “to have minimum public loss and maximum loss of government personnel”, implying the TTP had not planned to attack any planes on the airport tarmac.
Talks to end the TTP’s bloody seven-year insurgency in Pakistan have been underway since February, after Sharif returned to power last year, but little clear progress has resulted.
The assault will raise fresh concerns about Pakistan’s shaky security situation, and questions about how militants were able to penetrate the airport, which serves one of the world’s biggest cities.
Pakistan’s military has carried out a series of airstrikes in the TTP’s base in North Waziristan in recent weeks, killing dozens of people but holding back from a full-blown ground offensive.
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said the strikes had not hindered the TTP’s ability to carry out massive attacks thanks to its penetration of major cities, particularly Karachi, through sleeper cells.
“This is clearly part of a campaign aimed at hurting Pakistan’s strategic
and economic interests. It sends a clear message to foreigners also: don’t come to this country,” he said, adding that the Taliban had no real interest in peace talks.
“If the government still insists on dialogue with the militants, then they will run into difficulties with the military,” added analyst Hasan Askari.
Officials said the gunmen entered from two sides of the airport at around 11pm on Sunday – the terminal used for the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and an engineering section close to an old terminal.
An AFP reporter witnessed three huge blasts as suicide bombers detonated their explosives.
Smoke was seen billowing from the airport as fires raged close to planes parked on the runway, while militants clashed with the airport’s security force who were backed by police, paramilitary squads and elite commandos.
In 2011, Taliban gunmen attacked the Mehran naval base, which lies close to the Karachi airport, destroying two US-made Orion aircraft and killing 10 personnel in a 17-hour siege.
The group also carried out a raid on Pakistan’s military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi in 2009, leaving 23 dead including 11 troops and three hostages. — AFP