KARACHI: Pakistan on Monday regained control of a naval base in the country's biggest city, 17 hours after heavily armed Taliban gunmen attacked, destroying two US-made surveillance planes and killing 10 personnel.
It was the worst assault on a military base since the army headquarters was besieged in October 2009, piling further embarrassment on the armed forces three weeks after Osama bin Laden was found living under their noses.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said four to six militants used ladders to climb into the naval air base in the teeming port city of Karachi under the cover of night late Sunday, triggering gunbattles and a series of explosions.
Officials said 11 Chinese and six American maintenance contractors were evacuated safely during the attack, but it took 17 hours before the navy confirmed that the attack on the PNS (Pakistan Naval Ship) Mehran was over.
“We have cleared the base. The operation has been completed and the base is now under our control,” Commodore Irfan ul Haq told AFP.
Malik said the “terrorists” sneaked into the base from three points adjacent to residential areas in the city of 16 million people, whose port is a vital hub for Nato supplies bound for Afghanistan.
“It is not just an attack on a navy establishment, it is an attack on Pakistan,” Malik added, warning that those who sympathise with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda should instead “join hands with us to save our country”.
“There are believed to have been four to six terrorists. Four are confirmed dead. Two are suspected to have run away. We are still checking. Things will be clear by the evening,” he told reporters.
One of the attackers is believed to have blown himself up and three dead bodies were found, the minister said. He said the group had used two ladders, under the cover of darkness, to climb over the wall into the base late Sunday.
In a bizarre analogy, Malik compared the attackers to characters from a Star Wars film, dressed in Western clothes.
“They were wearing black clothes like in Star Wars movies, (one) with (a) suicide vest. They had small beards and two of them were between 20-22 years old while the third who blew himself up was about 25.”
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, who have stepped up attacks to avenge the May 2 death of bin Laden, said they had dispatched 15 to 20 suicide bombers equipped to fight for a week.
“We had already warned after Osama's martyrdom that we will carry out even bigger attacks,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Bin Laden was killed by US commandos in a garrison town north of Islamabad, in a raid that humiliated Pakistan's security establishment. The militants' attack deep inside Karachi underlined the military's vulnerability.
An AFP reporter heard blasts and intermittent barrages of gunfire on Monday, and helicopters flying overhead. Dozens of ambulances queued outside the base, which is about a few kilometres from Karachi's international airport.
Malik said 10 security personnel were killed, including one navy officer, three navy firemen, three navy commandos, a sailor and two paramilitary soldiers, and 15 others wounded.
“They have destroyed two P-3C Orion aircraft,” said Navy spokesman Commander Salman Ali. The attack was also likely to raise further concerns about the safety of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, which reportedly number more than 100.
The New York Times said that a mere 24 kilometres away from PNS Mehran, Pakistan was believed to keep a large depot for nuclear weapons that can be delivered from the air.
Malik refused to acknowledge any security lapse, saying the “rapid”response had prevented bigger losses and adding that a security alert had been ordered across the country in large cities to guard against future attacks.
Soon after the operation was over in Karachi a bomb blast damaged a bridge on the main highway linking the capital Islamabad to the northwestern city of Peshawar, but caused no casualties, police officer Quresh Khan told AFP.
In October 2009, Taliban militants besieged the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi for two days, killing 22 people and raising serious questions over why it took the military so long to put down the assault.
Karachi is Pakistan's financial capital and the assault was the fourth on the navy in a month. Three bombings in late April killed nine people.
Despite anger in Pakistan over bin Laden's killing, US President Barack Obama told the BBC he was ready to order a similar mission if another high-value target was discovered in Pakistan, or anywhere else.