Pakistan army soldiers stand guard at the Minhas base at Kamra, in Punjab province. — Reuters Photo
Pakistan army soldiers stand guard at the Minhas base at Kamra, in Punjab province. — Reuters Photo

KAMRA, Aug 16: Militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons carried out a brazen attack under cover of darkness on the Minhas base of the Pakistan Air Force at Kamra before dawn on Thursday. Eight militants were eliminated during the gunbattle that raged for hours after the raid while one soldier also lost his life.

“The attack was repelled and only one aircraft was damaged,” said an air force spokesman, adding that the air base at Kamra, 75km northwest of Islamabad, did not house nuclear weapons.

“No air base is a nuclear air base in Pakistan,” Group Captain Tariq Mahmood said in response to media speculations.

“Eight miscreants were killed inside the Minhas base boundary wall and one exploded himself outside the perimeters where he was hiding,” the spokesman added.

Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt, the air chief, has ordered an investigation into the attack, naming Air Marshal Athar Hussain Bukhari to head the board of inquiry.

Commandos were called in to reinforce the contingent at the base and police armoured personnel carriers pressed in.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the assault.

Its spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location: “We are proud of this operation. Our leadership had decided to attack Kamra base a long time ago”.

The Taliban said planes at the base were being used to kill its fighters.

Ehsan dedicated the attack to the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and claimed the militants had destroyed three aircraft and killed at least 12 soldiers.

The militants moved through a nearby village under cover of darkness and climbed a 2.7-metre wall strung with barbed wire to break into the base at around 2am, the PAF spokesman said. Some were wearing military uniforms.

The assault cast doubts over the government’s assertions that military operations in Swat and the tribal areas had blunted militants’ capability to conduct daring assaults.

Security forces opened fire after militants strapped with suicide bombing vests approached aircraft hangars, prompting other militants to fire rocket-propelled grenades from outside the base’s walls, the spokesman told reporters.

Base commander Air Commodore Mohammad Azam, who led the operation against the attackers, was shot in the shoulder, but was in stable condition, said Group Captain Tariq Mahmood.

Witnesses said the attackers came round the back, scaling the wall and exploiting Lailatul Qadr, the holiest night of Ramazan, remained undetected as long as possible.

“Most of the men (from the village at the back) were in mosques,” local resident Athar Abbas said.

“I heard three or four explosions. There was heavy gunfire also,” he said.

“It appears that the militants arrived using a village track and climbed over the wall.” Captain Tariq Mahmood said.

About an hour after guns fell silent at the base, a series of small explosions were heard as the PAF detonated bombs planted by the militants.

The Minhas base is adjacent to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a major air force research and development centre. The JF-17 fighter plane, jointly developed with China, is built at the facility.

VILLAGER’S ACCOUNT: Faheemullah Khan, a civilian who lives near Kamra, said he was at a mosque when he heard gunfire and explosions, but which “I mistook for military exercises”.

“Then we went to an eatery, which is near the main entrance to the base, and heard a louder explosion,” he said.“We saw six police vehicles rush in, and realised something unusual was happening.”