At least nine men, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, have stormed an air force base in Kamra, northwest of the Pakistani capital, killing five soldiers, security officials say.
Eight of the attackers were killed, a military spokesperson said, after the assault at the Minhas Airbase led to a fierce firefight that lasted several hours. The ninth attacker was killed when he exploded his suicide vest outside the perimeter of the base, the military said.
Commandos were called in to aid in the defence of the base, and police armoured personnel carriers were also involved in the operation to secure the facility.
Security forces opened fire on the attackers, some of whom were strapped with suicide bombing vests, as they approached aircraft hangars just before dawn on Thursday. The initial assault prompted other attackers to fire rocket-propelled grenades from outside the base’s walls, an air force spokesman told Reuters news agency.
Base commander Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, who led the operation against the attackers, was wounded in the shoulder, but is in stable condition, said the spokesman.
Among the dead were three base security personnel and two regular airmen.
Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from Islamabad, described the attack as “deeply embarrassing for the Pakistani military”.
The base was declared secure and clear of attackers by 12:25pm local time (07:25 GMT), 10 hours after the attack began, Air Force Spokesperson Captain Tariq Mahmood said.
Flames and a firefight
At least one of the rockets hit a hangar holding a number of aircraft, said Mahmood. The rocket pierced the hangar wall, and shrapnel from the explosion damaged one of the aircraft parked inside.
After the rocket barrage, the attackers, some of whom were disguised in security forces’ uniforms, scaled the wall surrounding the airbase, he said.
Guards inside the base then opened fire on the militants, and an intense firefight ensued, he said.
Security forces, backed by a team of elite commandos, fought the militants for two hours and were finally able to retake the base, the air force said.
Two improvised explosive devices were found during search operations after the attack, state media reported. They were destroyed in a controlled explosion by security personnel.
One officer told AFP news agency that he saw flames after waking up for his late night meal, eaten during the dawn-to-dusk Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
“There was an announcement by megaphone for soldiers not to move from the barracks and we were forbidden from going to the area where I saw the fire,” he said.
Faheemullah Khan, a civilian who lives near the base, said he was at a mosque praying when he heard gunfire and explosions, which he thought were military exercises.
“Then we came to a restaurant, which is next to the main entrance to the base, and heard a louder explosion,” he said.
“We saw six police vans rush in, and realised something was wrong.”
The Minhas Airbase, 75 km northwest of Islamabad, is adjacent to the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, a major air force research and development centre. Pakistan manufactures JF-17 fighter planes, jointly developed with China, at the site.
Several squadrons of fighter jets, including F-16s, and surveillance planes are believed to be based at Minhas.
The air force said that one aircraft had been damaged in the attack. A spokesman also said that the base did not house any nuclear weapons.
Taliban claim responsibility
All Pakistan’s airbases have been placed on high alert following the attack, and facilities in Kamra have been cordoned off.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack, the Reuters news agency reported.
“We are proud of this operation. Our leadership had decided to attack Kamra base a long time ago,” Ahsanullah Ahsan, a TTP spokesman, said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
According to a report in local media, the government was aware of the threat of an attack on an air force base in Punjab. The report cites a provincial government document detailing the threat, which it identified as coming from TTP fighters.
The Kamra base, between the capital and the main northwestern city of Peshawar, has previously been targeted in 2007 and 2009. In the latter attack, a suicide bomber killed six civilians and two air force personnel at a checkpoint.
On December 10, 2007, a suicide car bomber struck a school bus, wounding at least five children of employees.
Last year, six Taliban gunmen attacked a naval airbase in Pakistan’s largest city Karachi to avenge the killing of Osama bin Laden. At least 10 military personnel were killed and 20 wounded in the 16-hour assault.