ATTOCK: The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Pakistani military airbase early Thursday, which left 10 people dead, including a soldier, and damaged at least one Air Force aircraft.
The militant assault renews questions about security at key military installations, particularly at a base which has been attacked before.
Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed nine heavily armed TTP militants stormed the PAF Minhas airbase at Kamra, located about 70 kms from the capital Islamabad in Punjab’s Attock city, sparking an intense gun battle lasting almost five hours.
“The attack was launched from two different sides. A team of four members entered from one side and five from the other and than they launched a collective attack inside the camp,” Ehsan told Dawn.com, speaking from an undisclosed location, confirming that all nine attackers were killed in the assault.
The militant spokesman further claimed that they had achieved their targets and killed “more than a dozen security personnel” inside the base.
PAF officials also confirmed all nine militants had been killed, however, they said only one Pakistani soldier, Mohammad Asif, had lost his life in the attack.
The Taliban spokesman also claimed the attackers had destroyed three JF-17 thunder aircraft as well.
PAF officials said that only one of aircraft at the base was damaged in the attack.
Several squadrons of fighters and surveillance planes are believed to be housed at Kamra’s Minhas base. Officials also confirmed that over 30 planes were parked at the base, including state-of-the-art JF-17 Thunder fighter jets.
The airbase is a heavily guarded compound with the air force’s Kamra Aeronautical Complex also in its vicinity, where Pakistan assembles and overhauls JF-17 Thunder fighter jets in collaboration with China. According to reports, at least 11 Chinese engineers were working at the Kamra Aeronautical Complex.
All Chinese and others foreign engineers and technicians involved in co-production of Chinese and Pakistan JF-17 Thunder aircraft project were shifted to a high profile secure location, official sources told Dawn.com, adding that the engineers were not present near the attack area.
Early morning attack
Although the attack took place at about 2 am, it is likely many of the soldiers on the base were awake for prayers or breakfast during the fasting month of Ramazan.
“The base has been cleared. The operation has been completed,” a PAF spokesman said after over five hours of fierce gun battle between militants and Pakistani military commandos.
Although the TTP spokesman claims the militants attacked the base from two sides, it was not clear how the attackers managed to enter the sprawling base.
The gunmen disguised themselves in uniforms armed with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests, the air force said.
“Other miscreants then fired RPGs from outside the base boundary wall. As a result one PAF aircraft got damaged,” it added in a statement.
Special Forces and police were scrambled to the scene. Gunfire, rocket and hand grenade explosions were heard during heavy clashes. One officer told news agency AFP that he saw flames after waking up for his pre-dawn meal.
“There was an announcement by megaphone for soldiers not to move from the barracks and we were forbidden from going to the area where I saw the fire,” he said.
“The attackers were wearing security force uniforms but I can’t specify of which force uniform they were wearing,” he added. “One body of a suicide bomber strapped with explosives has been found close to the impact area.”
Base commander, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, who led the operation against the attackers, was wounded, but is in stable condition, said the spokesman. One other security official also received injuries.
Revenge for bin Laden’s death
Taliban spokesman Ehsan claimed the militant organisation had carried out the attack “to avenge the deaths of Osama bin Laden, the TTP Amir Baitullah Mehsud and other fighters who had been killed by the Pakistani security forces.”
Pakistani forces are fighting a challenging war on their soil against Islamist militants based, including al Qaeda and its offshoots and Pakistan’s own version of Taliban militants.
The spokesman claimed the Taliban would continue to target security installations “until the establishment of a true Islamic state in Pakistan.”
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt has ordered investigation into the incident.
The Air Chief Marshal summoned a meeting today at Air headquarter Islamabad to analyse the situation after the attack and to mull over the initial intelligence reports. The meeting would be attended by top leadership of Pakistan Air Force.
Chief of Kamra aeronautical complex and Base Commander will brief the meeting.
The government and military’s top leadership, including President Asif Ali Zardari, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaque Pervez Kayani and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf were notified of the attack, and the operation was being closely monitored by the army chief.
President Zardari strongly condemned the attack and expressed government’s resolve to eliminate terrorism.
Intel of possible attack
In recent weeks, military intelligence had warned of the possibility of such an attack on military installations. However, there was no specific information about an attack being targeted at the Kamra base.
This is not the first time that Kamra has been the target of a militant attack. On Oct 23, 2009, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra. Two security officers and six other people were killed in the attack.
Last year, six Taliban gunmen attacked a naval base in Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. At least 10 military personnel were killed and 20 wounded in the 16-hour assault.
—Zahir Shah Sherazi and Mubashir Zaidi contributed to this report.