Pakistani commandos ended a Taliban siege of a navy base in the country’s largest city after a 16-hour battle that the militants said was in part to avenge the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Ten members of Pakistan’s security forces were killed along with four guerrillas, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Karachi. The “terrorists were 20-22 years of age and wore Western clothes with suicide jackets beneath them,” Malik said. They were armed with rocket launchers and grenades, he said.
Pakistani Taliban had pledged to attack government and military installations after U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda leader bin Laden in a raid in Abbottabad, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Islamabad, on May 2. The American raid exacerbated tensions between the two countries, as the U.S. questioned whether Pakistani officials had protected bin Laden and Pakistan protested the violation of its territory.
The insurgents in Karachi damaged surveillance aircraft provided by the U.S. in the biggest strike against a leading Pakistani military installation since guerrillas attacked the army’s Rawalpindi headquarters in October 2009.
“This attack shows that the Taliban have sympathizers and insiders in the security establishment,” said Talat Masood, a retired army lieutenant general and security analyst in Islamabad. “This also shows that they have become more powerful and sophisticated in their planning and attacks.”
Six Americans, involved in training Pakistani forces, and 11 Chinese nationals were inside the base at the time of the attack, Malik said today. He said four militants had launched the raid, a far smaller number than claimed by the Taliban.
“Fifteen of our fighters entered the naval air base and we don’t expect them to return,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, said earlier by telephone from an undisclosed location. “They are there to kill. Our issue with Pakistan is its secular policies and friendship with America.”
Last night’s attack began with several explosions at the Mehran naval base around 11 p.m., followed by gunfire. Malik said that militants had entered from the back of the base by cutting through wires, before carrying out the attack like “movie stars.”
Two P-3C Orions, a maritime surveillance aircraft, were targeted and damaged in the attack, Haq said. The U.S. handed over the aircraft to the Pakistan navy in April 2010 and said it will give a total of eight by 2012, according to the U.S. Central Command website.
The Taliban may have hit the navy station for its role in helping conduct surveillance against movements by militant groups along Pakistan’s coast, said Bahukutumbi Raman, an Indian security analyst and retired counter-terrorism chief of India’s main intelligence agency.
Pakistan’s naval air unit, including the U.S.-supplied Orion aircraft, has been providing “air surveillance to prevent any sea-borne intrusions of al-Qaeda and to detect any terrorist plans for attacks on ships bringing supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan,” Raman wrote in an e-mailed analysis.
Trucks carrying soldiers entered the base soon after the attack began. Flames and black smoke rose into the air and dozens of ambulances waited outside the base.
Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have escalated with American officials saying they were worried that Pakistan’s intelligence agency maintains ties to guerrillas fighting American-led forces in Afghanistan. The U.S. military says its war against the Taliban is hindered by Pakistan’s failure to shut down militant havens.
Also straining relations is Pakistan’s opposition to U.S. drone attacks on Taliban targets that have killed civilians and American insistence that the strikes continue.
Pakistan’s leaders have rejected accusations they are not doing enough to defeat insurgents. The army’s offensives against the local Taliban movement and allied guerrillas have triggered retaliatory bombings and gun battles in cities nationwide that the government says have killed thousands of Pakistani citizens and security personnel.
Twin bombings on May 13 at a Pakistani paramilitary police academy killed 80 people in what the Pakistan Taliban said was in part revenge for the killing of bin Laden and a precursor to attacks against the U.S.
The PNS Mehran Base is 10 kilometers from Karachi’s Quaid-e-Azam International Airport. It provides all the logistic and administrative support to the aviation unit of the Pakistan navy, according to the navy’s website.
On Oct. 10, 2009, the Pakistani military freed 39 hostages after soldiers stormed a building in the army’s Rawalpindi headquarters, ending a 22-hour siege by militants.
Yesterday’s attack comes less than a month after militants attacked navy buses in Karachi, killing four people and injuring 56. Two days later, four navy personnel and one civilian were killed in a bomb attack on a navy bus in the financial capital.