KARACHI, May 23: Commandos regained control of the Navy’s Mehran base from a team of militants on Monday after a siege lasting 16 hours – an exceptionally audacious act at a high-security facility that once again threw up embarrassing questions across the world about the military’s capability to safeguard the country’s defence assets.
The attackers – thought to number six – destroyed two US-supplied P-3C Orion surveillance planes and killed 10 security officers – eight navy personnel and two Rangers. At least four of the attackers were eliminated, and two others may have escaped, said a Pakistan Navy official.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the assault, saying that it was in revenge for the May 2 American raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. “Our fighters are under orders to fight to the death,” the statement said.
“They (the militants) do not want to come out alive. They have gone there to embrace martyrdom,” said spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan.
The US Navy puts the cost of the P-3C Orions at $36 million each (almost three billion rupees).
This was the third major attack the group has claimed since the death of Bin Laden. The earlier ones were a car bombing that injured American consulate workers in Peshawar and a twin suicide attack that killed around 90 police recruits in Shabqadar.
The militants have carried out increasingly daring attacks on the armed forces since the Lal Masjid operation of 2007. The most brazen was in 2009 when terrorists stormed the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, holding hostages for 22 hours. But unlike the Sunday attack in Karachi, the assailants then failed to deeply penetrate the complex.
The militants, who were armed with grenades, rockets and automatic weapons, stormed the Navy’s airbase under cover of darkness late on Sunday night, using ladders and cutting the wire to get into the facility, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said at a press conference in Karachi after visiting the Mehran base.
Once inside, they scattered around the compound, setting off explosions and hiding in the sprawling facility.
During the day on Monday, the militants were holed up in an office building in a gunbattle with commandos, the navy chief said. Navy helicopters flew over the base and snipers were seen on a runway control tower.
By the afternoon, the militants had been defeated. “Thanks be to God, the base is cleared and the operation is over,” Admiral Nauman Bashir, the Navy chief, said. Commandos leaving the complex flashed victory signs to reporters.
The interior minister said he had seen some of the bodies of the attackers, even showing a picture of one lying bloodied on the grass that he took with his cell-phone. He said they were dressed in black and, in a bizarre comparison, likened them to “Star Wars characters”.
Six Americans and 11 Chinese aviation engineers were on the base but were escorted out unharmed, Mr Malik added.
Alberto Rodriguez, a spokesman for the US Embassy, said the Americans were working as contractors to help support the P-3C aircraft, but did not report to the embassy or consulate. Four of them were part of a Lockheed Martin contract engineering and technical support team, he added.
Sunday’s strike was the third militant attack on the Navy in Karachi within one month. Last month, they hit three buses taking navy employees to work, killing at least nine people.
The United States had handed over two Orions to the Pakistan Navy at a ceremony at the Mehran base in June last year. It was attended by 250 Pakistani and American officials, according to the website of the US Central Command. It said that by late next year, Pakistan would have eight of the planes.
Security lapse: The Interior Minister, in a show of stubbornness considering the occasion, refused to admit that the attack on the Mehran base was a serious breach of security and implied a lapse on part of the Navy and Air Force’s intelligence.
In the press conference Rehman Malik said an investigation team, headed by a naval officer and comprising experts from intelligence agencies, FIA, Rangers and police, had been set up and asked to finalise a report as early as possible.
“The government has decided to review overall security and in case of any lapse it will be looked into,” he added.
Mr Malik told the briefing the terrorists were overpowered after a joint action by the Navy, Rangers and police.
“Pakistan Navy’s rapid response force personnel, led by Lt Yasir Abbas, retaliated within minutes and attacked the terrorists. One aircraft was damaged. After that the Navy and Rangers towed the two other aircraft to safety,” he claimed.
Mr Malik paid tributes to the valour of Lt Yasir, the other navy personnel who took part in the operation and the Rangers.
In reply to a question, he said the Taliban were “enemies of Pakistan and want to destabilise the country”.
Talking to journalists at the Chief Minister’s House, the interior minister said: “We are fighting a war against terrorism on our borders and in our cities. The international community should help Pakistan.”
Mr Malik, who showed a photograph of a dead militant, did not disclose the identity of the four terrorists. Neither could he explain how the security of the PAF and PN was breached by a handful of gunmen.
MLY INSTALLATIONS BEING RELOCATED: Admiral Nauman Bashir, the navy chief, told newsmen the Navy was working on a plan to relocate its vital installations away from populated areas.
“We are trying to relocate the naval base and other vital installations away from residential areas,” he said in reply to searching questions by the media.
Admiral Bashir conceded that the terrorists were “highly trained”, refusing to rule out the involvement of a “foreign hand”. But he hastened to add that things would be clear only after an inquiry.
Admiral Bashir brushed aside reports that any foreigner had been hurt or taken hostage by the terrorists.
The navy chief said the “response time” by naval commandos was three minutes and they fought back well in the face of “highly trained assailants who had had sophisticated weapons like RPG launchers”.
Three firemen rushed to save the burning aircraft, but were put down by the attackers, he said.
“Two attackers blew themselves up while several were arrested and are now in custody,” Admiral Nauman Bashir said.
He said he had remained in “direct touch” with the President, the Prime Minister, the chief of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, the Army and Air force chiefs throughout the operation.
In reply to a question, he said the Navy had five P-3C Orion aircraft, three of which hade been modified to suit the country’s needs. Four more P-3C aircraft were undergoing modification in the United States, he added.