Troops recaptured a Pakistani naval airbase on Monday after a 16-hour battle with as few as six Taliban gunmen who had launched their brazen attack to avenge the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The assault casts fresh doubt on the Pakistani military's ability to protect its bases following a raid on the army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi in 2009 and is a further embarrassment following the surprise raid by U.S. special forces on the al-Qaida leader's hideout north of Islamabad on May 2.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said just six militants were believed involved in the attack on the PNS Mehran base in Karachi late on Sunday, destroying or damaging two aircraft and laying siege to a main building in one of the most heavily guarded bases in the nuclear-armed country. However, sources in the intelligence agencies claimed that seven terrorists had surrendered to the commandoes and they were taken to an undisclosed location on board an aircraft.
At least 13 military personnel were killed and 20 wounded in the assault that started at 10.30 p.m. on Sunday (1730 GMT), a navy spokesman said in a statement.
Malik said three militants were killed in the gunbattle while the body of a fourth was believed to be buried under the rubble of a collapsed wall. Two suspects were believed to have fled the scene, he added.
In a bizarre analogy, Malik compared the attackers to characters from a Star Wars film, dressed in Western clothes. "They were wearing black clothes like in Star Wars movies, (one) with (a) suicide vest. They had small beards and two of them were between 20-22 years old while the third who blew himself up was about 25."
The Pakistan Taliban, who are allied with al-Qaida, said they had staged the attack to avenge bin Laden's death.
"It was the revenge of martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful," Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, who has claimed responsibility for several attacks including the assassination of Pakistan’s Christian cabinet minister Shahbaz Bhatti, said in telephone calls to media offices.
Ehsan claimed that the team of militants they sent into Karachi's PNS Mehran naval base 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 said, claiming that up to 22 militants were assigned to launch the attack.
Malik said the militants, aged between 20 and 25, used two ladders to scale the walls of the base and jumped in by cutting barbed wire. He said the militants had used guns and grenades in their attack on the base, 15 miles (24 km) from the Masroor Air Base, Pakistan's largest and a possible depot for nuclear weapons. PNS Mehran is ringed with a concrete wall with about five feet of barbed wire on top. An aircraft, armed with rockets, hangs on show on a stand outside.
Malik said 17 foreigners – including 11 Chinese and six Americans – were inside the base at the time. All had been evacuated safely. One P-3C Orion, a maritime patrol aircraft supplied by the United States, had been destroyed and another aircraft had been damaged.
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Islamabad confirmed that six American contractors had also been on the base providing maintenance support for navy aircraft. He said all Americans had been accounted for.
Malik refused to acknowledge any security lapse, saying the "rapid" response had prevented bigger losses and adding that a security alert had been ordered across the country in large cities to guard against future attacks.
"It is not just an attack on a navy establishment, it is an attack on Pakistan," Malik added, warning that those who sympathize with the Taliban and al-Qaida should instead "join hands with us to save our country."
Pakistan has faced a wave of assaults over the last few years, many of them claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. Others have been blamed on al Qaida-linked militant groups once nurtured by the Pakistani military and which have since slipped out of control. The Taliban have stepped up attacks since bin Laden's death, killing almost 80 people in a suicide bombing on a paramilitary academy and an assault on a U.S. consulate vehicle in Peshawar.
Malik said militants had planned to attack sensitive military installations as well as important figures at a meeting in North Waziristan – a global hub for militants on the Afghan border – after bin Laden's killing.
On Monday, six militants were killed in a missile strike by a U.S. drone aircraft in North Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban are led by Hakimullah Mehsud, whose fighters regularly clash with the army in the northwest, parts of which are bases for Afghan militants.
On Monday, an Afghan television station reported Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been killed in Pakistan, but the group denied it, saying he was safe and in Afghanistan.
The United States sees Pakistan as a key, if difficult, ally essential to its attempts to root out militant forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, sees militant groups as leverage to ward off the influence of its old enemy India in Afghanistan, and the discovery that bin Laden was living in the town of Abbottabad has revived suspicion that militants may be receiving help from the security establishment.
Pakistan says its senior leadership did not know of bin Laden's whereabouts, but his presence and his killing have strained already fragile ties with the United States and deeply embarrassed Pakistan's military.
The military, for its part, has come under intense domestic pressure for allowing five U.S. helicopters to penetrate Pakistan's airspace and kill the al-Qaida leader.
On Monday, the Pakistani rupee fell to a record low against the U.S. dollar, partly because of concerns that growing tension with the West could choke off much needed foreign aid.
Pakistani defense analysts, meanwhile, said the strike on sophisticated military assets was intended to undermine confidence in the military’s ability to protect its most prized assets, including the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Ghazanfar Ali, an analyst and former army brigadier, said the militants were trying to create alarm about the security surrounding Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
“The choice of target was to emphasize nuclear vulnerability,” he said. “They are trying to hurt Pakistan’s reputation as a nuclear weapon state.”
Shaukat Qadir, a retired senior army officer, said it was striking how the militants had deliberately chosen to destroy hardware rather than create havoc or inflict maximum casualties.
“Most terrorists go for people, not for assets,” he said. “The first rocket that was fired was at the P-3C.”