(From top) Smoke rises from the old terminal building near the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on Monday after the shootout between security forces and the militants; soldiers rush to the old terminal building on Sunday; bodies of terrorists at the airport; a commando exults after the operation had ended. (AFP, AP)
Karachi, June 9: Taliban militants disguised as security forces stormed the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi yesterday and at least 28 people, including 10 heavily armed gunmen, were killed in a dramatic night-long battle at one of the country’s most high-profile targets.
It revived memories of a similar attack on a Karachi naval base three years ago.
The 10 militants stormed the old terminal at the airport, which is mainly used by Haj pilgrims and also used for cargo or private flights for senior government officials and business leaders, just before midnight yesterday using suicide vests, heavy and automatic weapons, hand grenades and rocket launchers after arriving in two Suzuki mini-vans.
The militants then split into two groups, with one attacking a gate called Fokker to create a diversion and the other storming the old terminal, police said.
“They operated in pairs. That’s why their bodies were found lying in pairs,” said senior police officer Raja Umar Khattab, adding the militants had fired rockets at the parked passenger planes but missed. “It seems there was some ill-planning on their part.”
Chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa said all 10 militants were killed during the operation and no damage was caused to the four passenger planes parked close to the old terminal.
The old terminal remained besieged for over 12 hours with flight operations at the near-by Jinnah International Airport coming to a complete standstill. The army and the paramilitary Rangers were immediately moved to the old terminal with clear orders to eliminate all terrorists. The operation was launched almost an hour after the terrorists, who were wearing military uniforms, started the shootout at the old terminal.
Officials said at least three militants blew themselves up after they found themselves trapped in a cordon laid by security forces.
The assault on the Karachi airport all but destroys prospects for peace talks between the Pakistani Taliban and the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
It also deals a heavy blow to Sharif’s efforts to attract foreign investors to revive economic growth and raises questions about security at the country’s main installations.
The Pakistani Taliban, an alliance of insurgent groups fighting to topple the government and set up a sharia state, said they carried out the attack in response to air strikes on their strongholds near the Afghan border.
In a possible change of tack, the Taliban said their mission was to hijack a plane — a break from their usual pattern of and suicide bomb attacks. “The main goal of this attack was to damage the government, including by hijacking planes and destroying state installations,” said Shahidullah Shahid, a Taliban spokesman.
Another security source said the militants were highly trained and carried large backpacks filled with dried fruit and water, suggesting they were in for a long siege.
Gun battles raged through the night until security forces regained control of the airport at dawn. Passengers were evacuated and all flights were diverted. The government said security was being stepped up at all airports.
“We need to keep extremely vigilant,” Shujaat Azeem, special assistant to Sharif on aviation, said in a statement.
Pakistan’s paramilitary force said that the attackers were ethnic Uzbeks. Pakistani officials often blame foreign militants holed up in lawless areas on the Afghan border for staging attacks alongside the Pakistani Taliban around the country. “Three militants blew themselves up and seven were killed by security forces,” Rizwan Akhtar, the regional head of the paramilitary Rangers, said in televised remarks. “The militants appear to be Uzbek.”
The death toll included airport security guards and workers with Pakistan International Airlines.
In separate, unrelated violence, 24 Shia pilgrims were killed in a suicide attack near Pakistan’s border with Iran, an official said. A radical Sunni group claimed responsibility. As violence spiralled, a suspected Taliban suicide bomber rammed a truck into a military checkpoint on the border with Afghanistan, killing four soldiers, military officials said.
Sharif came to power last year promising to find a negotiated solution to years of violence but after the attack on the airport, the peace process looks in trouble. Karachi is Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial hub, home to a vibrant stock exchange, the central bank and the country’s main port.
But it is also a violent and chaotic place where Taliban militants and criminal gangs operate freely underground.
At the airport, gun battles went on for five hours and television pictures showed fire raging as ambulances ferried casualties away. At least three loud explosions were heard as militants wearing suicide belts blew themselves up. By dawn today, the army said the airport had been secured but heavy smoke rose above the building. “Ten militants aged between 20 and 25 have been killed by security forces,” said a spokesman for the Rangers. “A large cache of arms and ammunition has been recovered from the militants.”
Peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban had been failing in recent months, already dampening hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement with the insurgents, who continue attacks against government and security targets.
All flights to Karachi were diverted to other airports.
Although the fighting took place away from the main terminal used by commercial airlines, some passengers were stranded on airplanes that had been about to take off when the assault started.
At one point, Syed Saim A. Rizvi, a Twitter user who said he was on a flight, reported that commandos from the army’s elite Special Services Group had taken control of his plane. Moments later, he reported a “huge blast” and heavy firing outside and a “full panic” on board.
Two hours later, he said that the Pakistani military had safely evacuated all passengers from the plane.
A spokeswoman at Jinnah Hospital in Karachi, Dr Seemi Jamali, said that in addition to the dead, at least 16 people had been seriously injured.
A senior officer with the Rangers, the paramilitary force that helps secure the airport, told reporters that the attackers had been carrying Indian weapons, in an apparent suggestion of Indian involvement that was greeted with widespread derision on social media.
The assault was the most ambitious of its kind in Pakistan since Islamist militants attacked a navy air base in central Karachi in 2011.
Although elite commandos moved quickly to counter the assault, many Pakistanis expressed shock that militants could penetrate such a prominent target so thoroughly and raised questions about why the attack had not been prevented by the military’s powerful spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence.