Fighters belonging to the Pakistani Taliban have stormed an air force station near Peshawar in Pakistan’s northwest, resulting in a firefight with security forces and the deaths of at least 43 people, sources say.
ISPR, the Pakistan military’s media wing, said at least 21 security officers and five civilians working at the Badaber air force base died, and 14 fighters were killed in Friday morning’s gun battle.
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The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the raid at the facility, located on the edge of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
An army captain and two guards were among the dead, according to the military and a local hospital that received the bodies, and at least 10 soldiers were wounded.
It was unclear if any of the attackers got away. Details about how they managed to make their way into a mosque inside the compound walls and kill worshippers during prayers were sketchy.
Ambulances took around 20 wounded military personnel to hospital, Bilal Ahmed, a rescue official, told Reuters news agency.
Al Jazeera’s Nicole Johnston, reporting from Peshawar, said Friday’s assault was the first major attack conducted by the Pakistani Taliban since the Peshawar school massacre in December.
“Having said that, there have been warnings of a major attack to come … At this stage, we don’t know if the 16 killed in the attack on the mosque are civilians or military personnel,” she said.
The assault came as the Pakistan army was carrying out a major operation against local and foreign fighters in the North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Major-General Asim Saleem Bajwa, an army spokesman, said the attackers entered the base from different directions in a two-pronged assault – apparently one push targeted the mosque – but security forces quickly responded.
The airbase – established in the 1960s – was not functional, and it was mostly being used as a residential place for the employees and officers of the air force, reports said.
In statements posted on Twitter, Bajwa said Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, rushed to Peshawar to meet the security forces taking part in the clearing operation.
He said Sharif would visit a military hospital where doctors were treating wounded soldiers.
A military official at the airbase, who asked not to be identified, said the attackers opened fire on security guards as they tried to fight their way into the facility.
“All the terrorists were wearing explosive-laden jackets and were armed with hand-propelled grenades, mortars, AK-47 rifles,” the official told Reuters.
“The Quick Response Force of the Pakistan army immediately responded and killed six terrorists before they could enter.”
Mohamad Khurasani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
In a statement to the media, he said the fighters gave safe exit to women and children after attacking the base.
He said the group targeted 50 security forces, but the claim could not be confirmed by the government or military sources.
Shortly after the attack, a suspected US drone strike hit a home in the south Waziristan tribal region, south of Peshawar, killing at least three fighters and wounding five, according to two Pakistani security officials.
The number of attacks in Pakistan has fallen around 70 percent this year, due to a combination of a military offensive against Taliban bases along the Afghan border and government initiatives to tackle violence.
That follows a massacre at a military-run school last December that killed around 150 people, almost all of them children.