Taliban attack Pak Air Force base
In a brazen pre-dawn assault, heavily-armed Taliban terrorists donning suicide vests on Thursday stormed a key Pakistan Air Force base believed to house nuclear weapons, triggering a fierce gunbattle that left nine attackers and a soldier dead and parts of the complex ablaze.
The heavily guarded Minhas base is located about 70 km northwest of capital Islamabad in the vicinity of Pakistan’s key jet manufacturing plant, the Kamra Aeronautical Complex, where state-of-the art JF-17 Thunder fighters are assembled in collaboration with China besides French Mirages. At least 11 Chinese engineers were working at the complex who were immediately shifted to a secure place.
Base commander, Air Commodore Muhammad Azam, who led the counter attack participated by PAF and army commandos, was wounded along with three other security personnel. They were reported to be in stable condition.
The audacious attack came just a day after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta expressed fears about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
The base in the Attock district of Punjab, according to a New York Times report, is believed to be one of the locations where Pakistan’s nuclear stockpiles, estimated to include at least 100 warheads, are stored.
The attackers, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, tried to target Saab-2000 surveillance aircraft, news channels reported. Eight terrorists were killed inside the base while one “exploded himself outside the perimeter,” where he was hiding, a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) spokesman said.
An aircraft was damaged when it was hit by a rocket- propelled grenade fired by the attackers, he said. He did not give details about the aircraft or the extent of the damage.
“The combing and scanning operation by security officials at PAF base Minhas has been concluded,” the spokesman said.
A few improvised explosive devices were found within the airbase and they were being detonated in a controlled environment by explosives experts, he said.
Tehrik-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with militant spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan saying the group’s suicide bombers carried it out to avenge the death of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and Al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
He claimed the attackers had achieved their targets and dealt a “lethal blow” to the security forces.
The explosives were strapped to the body of one of the attackers, who were engaged by two teams of commandos during the three-hour gun battle.
Earlier reports had said two security personnel were killed in the attack, which came just two days after Pakistan Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani renewed the country’s commitment to the war on terrorism.
Amidst speculation about a new campaign against the Taliban in the tribal belt, Kayani said the war on terrorism was Pakistan’s “own war and a just war too.” The attack was described by experts as a serious security lapse as The Express Tribune newspaper had reported on August 10 that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan could target PAF facilities in Punjab before Eid-ul-Fitr.
Citing intelligence reports, the daily reported that militants could carry out attacks on the 27th or 28th day of the Islamic month of Ramzan or August 16 and 17. The attack was the latest in a string of audacious assaults by the Taliban on Pakistani military installations. In the past, Taliban had attacked the army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and a key naval airbase in Karachi.
Several Western media reports in the past had said nuclear weapons are based at Kamra complex, home to an airbase and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex that assembles JF-17 combat jets and drones.
(With inputs from PTI)