Emirates passengers were guided to safety by military during Karachi airport siege

Flights between the UAE and Karachi were grounded on Sunday night after the airport in Pakistan was closed in the aftermath of an attack by gunmen.

Pakistani firefighters put out a blaze at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. UAE carriers have delayed services. Asif Hassan / AFP Photo
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Raza Khan

KARACHI // Terrified passengers on an Emirates jet about to take off for Dubai were led to safety amid a deadly siege and gun battle at Karachi airport in Pakistan.

A gang of 10 Pakistani Taliban militants disguised as police officers and airline staff, some wearing suicide vests, stormed Jinnah International Airport and opened fire with machine guns and rocket and grenade launchers.

As a battle with security forces raged for five hours until dawn on Monday, the passengers and crew of Emirates flight EK603, which was already on the tarmac, were escorted from the plane by Pakistani soldiers and taken to a secure area of the terminal building. They were unhurt.

There were unconfirmed reports that some of the attackers had tried to hijack a plane, but had been fought off. Maj Gen Asim Bajwa, an army spokesman, denied that the gunmen had attempted a hijacking.

When the battle ended yesterday morning all 10 Taliban fighters were dead, along with 18 security and airport personnel.

The Taliban said they

in retaliation for the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the militant leader who died in a US drone strike last November.

The terminal is normally used by Haj pilgrims and VIPs, and for cargo. The airport reopened late yesterday afternoon and was fully functioning, said Shujaat Azeem, the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser for civil aviation.

The attack had begun when the militants made it through security checkpoints at the terminal, about 1.5 kilometres from the main airport. Once inside, the attackers stormed on to a nearby runway, lobbing grenades and salvos of gunfire at security officers.

"They came from the fuelling area and started indiscriminate firing," said an airport employee who fled and hid in a nearby building in the chaos of the initial attack.

"They were dressed like us," he said, and "there was heavy firing from both sides".

The security officers were initially confused by the militants' official uniforms, but their long, unkempt beards eventually made it possible for some of them to be distinguished, the worker said.

Local news channels showed footage of a huge fire close to three parked passenger jets that came from a fuel depot set alight during the firefight.

As dawn broke yesterday, smoke could still be seen billowing in the air. Karachi police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo said no aircraft had been damaged in the attack.

However, a cargo building was gutted by the fire and the explosions, said Rizwan Akhtar, the chief of Pakistan's elite paramilitary Rangers.

He said some of the attackers appeared to be Uzbeks but officials were still

.

Everyone in the main terminal of the airport was safe, Gen Bajwa said.

Emirates confirmed that its passengers and crew were unharmed.

"Under the guidance of the Pakistan military the passengers and crew disembarked the aircraft and were taken to a secure area of the terminal," a spokesman said.

"When the airport reopens all passengers will be rebooked on to alternate Emirates flights to continue their journey."

According to the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority website, two other international flights were scheduled to depart Jinnah International between 10.30pm and 1am, bound for Sharjah and Bangkok.

All Karachi-bound flights were diverted and flight operations remained closed yesterday.

Flights between the UAE and Karachi, including from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, were among those delayed.

An Etihad Airways spokesman said they were continuing to monitor the security situation in Karachi.

tkhan@thenational.ae

nhanif@thenational.ae

* Raza Khan reported from Karachi, Taimur Khan from New York and Nadeem Hanif from Dubai