A Pakistani army commando mans a checkpoint while others check vehicles… (Fareed Khan/AP )
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —Pakistani commandos on Monday regained control of a naval air base in the southern metropolis of Karachi, nearly 17 hours after armed fighters launched an audacious attack that the Pakistani Taliban said was meant to avenge Osama bin Laden’s death.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the overnight siege, which included more than a dozen fiery explosions that shook the port city, was carried out by no more than six attackers with rockets, grenades and machine guns. The fighters killed 10 Pakistani security personnel and destroyed two U.S.-supplied maritime-surveillance airplanes, Malik said.
The attack, which dominated Pakistan’s television news channels for hours, underscored Islamist insurgents’ ability to penetrate the nation’s fortified security installations, and several analysts said it was likely that they were helped by people inside the base. It dealt another embarrassing blow to Pakistan’s powerful military, which has faced harsh domestic criticism over the U.S. operation that killed bin Laden early this month. The U.S. raid showed that Pakistan was vulnerable to incursion by a foreign military and apparently unable to locate the world’s most-wanted terrorist — who was hiding in a Pakistani garrison town.
The bin Laden raid also raised questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and defense analysts said the Karachi assault renewed those doubts. Even as some government and military officials depicted the Taliban attack as a fluke, not a major security breach, Malik said it showed that international allies, including the United States, need to provide more assistance to Pakistan’s security forces. In the wake of bin Laden’s killing, some American lawmakers have called for cuts in U.S. aid to Pakistan, most of which has gone to the military.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said his cabinet’s defense committee was meeting to review the Karachi attack and assess national security.
Malik said the militants — whom he described as dressed in black and resembling “ ‘Star Wars’ characters” — entered from a residential district abutting the base. Using two ladders placed in a spot obscured from security cameras, they scaled the walls and clipped the barbed wire at the top, then headed for the hangar containing American-made P-3C Orion airplanes, he said.
The attackers fired on one plane, Malik said, and the resulting explosion destroyed it and a second plane. Pakistani naval commandos and marines eventually cornered the militants in an office building and killed four of them, he said, adding that two others might have escaped. An intelligence official in Karachi said, however, that only the four militants who were killed had carried out the attack.
The siege was the most brazen attack on a Pakistani security institution since an 18-hour assault on the army’s general headquarters near Islamabad, the capital, in 2009. It was the second major assault on security forces since bin Laden’s death and the third on the Pakistani naval forces in Karachi in the past month. The Pakistani Taliban, an al-Qaeda-linked organization that regularly strikes the police and military, had vowed to step up attacks on American and Pakistani targets to avenge bin Laden’s death.
Malik, speaking to reporters in Karachi, said “external elements” — code here for India, Pakistan’s archenemy — might have been involved with the militants, but he cited no evidence.
Defense analysts offered varying explanations for why the Taliban had struck a naval air base in Karachi, a city that is far from the terrorist bases in the mountainous borderlands but is viewed as a militant hideout. Some said the American-made planes, which were delivered by the U.S. military in the summer, were the clear target; others surmised that militants sought to discourage the Pakistani navy’s participation in an international coalition that monitors the Arabian Sea and waters off North Africa. Others endorsed Malik’s view, saying the destroyed planes were probably used for surveillance of possible Indian submarines.
Malik said the attack had been planned in Pakistan’s tribal belt near Afghanistan and described it as an example of why international doubts about Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism — and suspicions of collusion with militants — were misplaced.
“I must say to the world, ‘Look here, we are the victim of the war,’ ” Malik said. “We have daily 9/11s in this country. . . . Trust us, because this is the time we need you to support us morally.”
Six American contractors working on the planes, supplied last year as part of an eight-plane purchase, were among 17 foreigners on the base at the time of the siege, said Malik and a U.S. Embassy spokesman. Malik said that the other 11 were Chinese and that all escaped without harm.
Also Monday, militants detonated a bomb under a bridge on the highway between Islamabad and the northwestern city of Peshawar; authorities said no one was killed. In the tribal area of North Waziristan, the hub of al-Qaeda and other militant groups that attack NATO forces in Afghanistan, a suspected CIA drone strike killed at least three people, authorities in the area said.
Special correspondents Nisar Mehdi in Karachi and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.