KARACHI: An overnight battle with militants at the PNS Mehran base near Sharah-e-Faisal erupted again after dawn on Monday, with blasts ringing out and choppers hovering overhead as security forces launched a counter-offensive.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have claimed responsibility for the brazen attack on the base by 15-20 gunmen, saying it was to avenge the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 2.
“It was the revenge of martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful,” Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Ehsan said that the team of militants they sent into Karachi’s PNS Mehran naval base night had enough supplies to survive a three-day siege.
“They have enough ammunition and food and they can fight and survive for three days,” he added.
He said up to 22 militants were assigned to launch the attack. Accounts are unclear, but up to five militants may have been killed by Pakistani troops. The remaining are holed up in a building on the base exchanging fire with commandos.
“The operation still continues. It is not over yet,” said one security official, eight hours after a group of up to 15 militants stormed the installation with guns and grenades, killing at least five people and blowing up at least two military aircrafts.
More than 30 troops entered the PNS Mehran base in the southern city of Karachi as the battle resumed and eight blasts were heard in the space of 30 minutes.
Eleven people were wounded in the attack on one of the country’s most heavily guarded military installations, where jet fuel tanks appeared to have caught fire and exploded.
“They were carrying guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and hand grenades. They hit the aircrafts with an RPG,” Navy spokesman Commander Salman Ali said earlier.
“They have destroyed two P-3c Orion aircrafts,” he added.
The assault started at approximately 10:30 pm on Sunday.
The dead included one sailor, three firefighters and an Army ranger, Yasir said.
The Karachi attack evoked memories of an assault on Pakistan’s army headquarters in the town of Rawalpindi in 2009, and revived concerns that even the most well-guarded installations in the country remain vulnerable to militants.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said earlier the militants had attacked from the rear of the base. “We have been able to confine them to one building and an operation is underway either to kill or capture them.”
He said that terrorists sneaked into the base from three of its boundaries bordering civilian populated areas.
“A building in the premises is still under their occupation from where they are exchanging fire with our soldiers,” he said.
“The situation is being tackled delicately to secure assets, minimise human losses and defeat the terrorists completely,” Malik said, adding that al Qaeda and the Taliban had become a danger to the existence of Pakistan.
“It is not just an attack on a navy establishment, it is an attack on Pakistan,” Malik said, warning that those who sympathise with the Taliban and al Qaeda should realise the gravity of the situation and “join hands with us to save our country”.
Malik said the Taliban had vowed to avenge the death of bin Laden by attacking Pakistan’s military and civilian interests.
Media reports said the attackers had made their way in through a sewer line, but that was not confirmed. The military’s goal is to capture as many of the attackers alive as possible, Pakistan television reported.
Pakistani military and paramilitary reinforcements poured in after the attack began, with four vehicles carrying about 10 troops each moving into the base.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack.
“Such a cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism,” Gilani said in statement.
Wave of Bombings
Pakistan has faced a wave of bombings and gun assaults over the last few years, some of them claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban.
Others have been blamed on al Qaeda-linked militant groups once nurtured by the Pakistani military which have since slipped out of control.
The discovery that bin Laden was living in the garrison town of Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistan Military Academy, has revived suspicions that militants may be receiving help from some people within the security establishment.
Pakistan and the United States say the senior leadership in the country did not know bin Laden was in Abbottabad.
Washington sees nuclear-armed Pakistan as a key, if troubled, ally in the region essential to its attempts to root out militant forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“We condemn the attack and our sympathies are with the families of those injured or killed,” the White House in Washington said in a statement.
On April 28, suspected militants detonated a roadside bomb in Karachi, killing four members of the navy, the third attack on the navy in a week.
The attack came two days after two bombs hit buses carrying navy personnel, killing four people and wounding 56. Taliban insurgents took responsibility for the twin attacks.
Pakistani Taliban Behind Naval Base Attack
Militants stormed the Mehran naval air base in the southern city of Karachi, starting fires and setting off explosions.
It triggered gunbattles with commandos inside one of the country's most heavily guarded military installations.
Eight explosions have been heard from the complex as 30 more troops reinforce more
than 100 commandos battling the militants.
Around 15 to 20 attackers were said to be inside the facility, and they had also attacked three hangars housing aircraft.
At least one patrol aircraft had been destroyed, it was reported.
"We claim responsibility for this attack in Karachi," Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We had already warned after Osama's (bin Laden) martyrdom that we will carry out even bigger attacks," he added.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the militants had attacked from the rear of the base.
"We have been able to confine them to one building and an operation is under way either to kill or capture them."
Journalist Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, in Karachi, told Sky News: "From where I was I could hear a lot of firing and then several explosions."The Pakistani air force has a base on a main thoroughfare in the city and that has been attacked.
"Inside that air base there is a naval base and that has also been attacked
"Over 10 terrorists are still inside and there could be a hostage-like situation."
It is believed the terrorists entered the base through a Pakistan air force museum next to the base, which has lower security.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack.
In a statement, he said: "Such a cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism."
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
But the Pakistani Taliban, which has previously launched attacks in Karachi, has pledged to retaliate for the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this month.
Update: Militants Storm Pakistani Navy Base
Islamist militants stormed a naval base in the Pakistani city of Karachi late Sunday, destroying a U.S.-supplied surveillance aircraft, firing rockets and battling commandos sent to subdue them in one of the most brazen attacks in years, officials said.
At least four navy personnel were killed and nine wounded in fighting at the Naval Station Mehran that was going on more than four hours after the strike began, said navy spokesman Irfan ul Haq. He did not know how many militants had been killed or wounded.
Between 10 and 15 attackers entered the high-security facility before splitting up into smaller groups, setting off explosions and hiding in the sprawling facility, he said.
"We are receiving fire from different directions," said another spokesman, Salman Ali.
The coordinated strike rocked the country's largest city just under three weeks after the death of Osama bin Laden in an American raid on the northwestern garrison city of Abbottabad, an event al-Qaida allied extremists here have vowed to avenge.
The unilateral American raid triggered a strong backlash against Washington, which is trying to support Pakistan in its fight against militants, as well as rare domestic criticism against the armed forces for failing to detect or prevent the operation.
The fact that militants were able to enter one of the country's largest military bases is another embarrassing blow to the army and will raise questions over whether the attackers had inside information. That they targeted a U.S. supplied aircraft draws attention to American aid to the military, something generals here do not talk about, fearing criticism from the county's fiercely anti-American population.
After heavy American prodding, security forces launched several operations against militants in their heartland close to the border with Afghanistan over the last three years. The extremists have struck back against police and army targets around the country.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack. But the Pakistani Taliban, an al-Qaida allied network which has previously launched attacks in Karachi, has pledged to retaliate for the death of bin Laden, and has claimed responsibility for several bloody attacks since then.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack, saying such a "cowardly act of terror could not deter the commitment of the government and people of Pakistan to fight terrorism."
Sunday's raid appeared to be the most serious against the military since October 2009, when militants attacked the army headquarters close to the capital, Islamabad. They held dozens hostage in a 22-hour standoff that left 23 people dead, including nine militants.
The raid began with at least three loud explosions, which were heard by people who live around the naval air station. It was unclear what caused the explosions, but they set off raging fires that could be seen from far in the distance.
An Associated Press reporting team outside the base heard at least six other explosions and sporadic gunfire.
Authorities sent in several dozen navy and police commandos to battle the attackers, who responded with gunfire and grenades, said Salman Ali. At least one airplane in a hangar — a P-3C Orion, a maritime surveillance aircraft that was recently given to Pakistan by the U.S. — was destroyed, he said.
The United States handed over two Orions to the Pakistani navy at a ceremony at the base in June 2010 attended by 250 Pakistani and American officials, according to the website of the U.S. Central Command. It said by late 2012, Pakistan would have eight of the planes.
At least one media report said a team of American technicians were working on the aircraft at the time of the strike, but U.S. Embassy spokesman Alberto Rodriguez said no Americans were on the base. Ali also stated there was no foreigners inside the base.
Karachi has not been spared the violence sweeping the country, despite being in the south far from the northwest where militancy is at its strongest. In April, militants bombed three buses taking navy employees to work, killing at least nine people.
The Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups have little direct public support, but the army and the government have struggled to convince the people of the need for armed operations against them. The militants' identification with Islam, strong anti-American rhetoric and support for insurgents in Afghanistan resonates with some in the country.
"It's a terrorist attack. More than 10 terrorists are inside," provincial home ministry official Sharfuddin Memon told AFP news agency.
"One of the four aircraft inside the premises has been damaged," he added.
Militants have attacked a Pakistani air base in Karachi, the country's largest city, police say.
Explosions and gunshots were heard as the attackers fought with troops at the Mehran naval aviation base. There are reports of casualties.
Eyewitnesses say black smoke is billowing from the base.
Militants in Pakistan have vowed to avenge the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces on 2 May, and have carried out several attacks since then.