Taimur Khan and Raza Khan
KARACHI // Pakistani Taliban gunmen attacked an airport security training facility on Tuesday before being repelled in a shootout, one day after a brazen overnight raid on the country’s busiest airport left 37 dead.
The attack on the airport security facility, located one kilometre from the main terminal of Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, came after Pakistani military airstrikes on a number of suspected Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bases in the Khyber tribal region. Pakistani security officials said at least 25 militants were killed.
At least three masked Taliban gunmen on motorcycles fired at guards manning entry points to the training and barracks compound at around noon, and tried to enter but were quickly fought off by security personnel guarding the outer perimeter.
The men were chased by security forces to a drainage ditch where they were engaged in another firefight.
“We gave them a strong answer,” said an Airport Security Force (ASF) guard stationed at one of the entrances that was attacked.
There were no reported deaths or injuries and the militants all escaped on foot into the adjoining Pehlwan Goth slum. Television footage showed security guards running and taking up positions as the shoot-out continued. Paramilitary Rangers launched a search operation in the slum and were backed by surveillance helicopters, but no arrests were announced.
“Today’s attack ... in Karachi is in response to the bombardment on innocent people in Tirah Valley and other tribal areas. We will continue such attacks,” TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pakistani fighter jets bombed nine “terrorist hideouts” in the Khyber tribal area, according to the military. The army has stepped up operations in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan that are home to a constellation of Islamist militant groups and foreign fighters.
The army’s escalation comes as nascent peace talks between the civilian government and the TTP – which the military had opposed – have broken down. Infighting among the group last month split it into two opposing camps, and analysts say the core group that follows Afghanistan-based leader Mullah Fazlullah will now be unrestrained as it attempts to prove its relevance.
While the attack on the airport security training facility fell far short of the daring raid by TTP terrorists on the airport, which shut down the airport for most of Monday, operations were against temporarily suspended on Tueday after the shooting began, and roads leading to the airport were closed.
“All the flights were suspended immediately to avoid any untoward incident, however, after getting clearance within 20 minutes, all flights were allowed to move to their destinations,” a spokesman for the civil aviation authority said.
In the airport attack that began Sunday night and continued into Monday morning, at least 10 militants in ASF uniforms and armed with suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons stormed a VIP terminal and onto a runway. They were prepared for a prolonged siege and carried food and medicine, and Pakistani officials said they were likely attempting to hijack a passenger jet and destroy planes and airport facilities.
All of the attackers were eventually killed, but not before 27 security personnel and airport staff were killed, including seven workers whose burnt bodies were discovered in a damaged cold-storage building on Tuesday morning, well after security officials had declared the airport cleared.
The bodies were only found after enraged relatives protested outside the airport’s main terminal. The lapse will raise questions about security at the country’s biggest airport as well as of the official reports of the amount of damage caused by the attack.
The workers had hidden in the storage area, according to Pakistani media reports.
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One of the protesting relatives, Shahid Khan, said his 32-year-old nephew was one of those died. He had called his wife just before 11.30pm on Sunday to tell her of the attack.
“’The attack is on our office, they are showering the office with rockets and bullets,’” Mr Khan said his nephew had told his wife. “That was the last contact and then the line got cut — but we did not know it would be forever.” //CUT FOR PRINT//
The audacious attacks on the economic centre of Pakistan have led observers to question whether prime minister Nawaz Sharif will give up his bid at negotiations with the Taliban, which seeks to overthrow the government, and agree to the all-out operation in their North Waziristan base that the army chief has been pushing for.
Mr Sharif has deferred making decisions about how to take on the militants, fearing the effects of a violent response by the TTP in Pakistan’s cities.
The army believes that an offensive in North Waziristan must be launched before the Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of this year because their forces would need to secure the Afghanistan side of the border to prevent TTP militants from fleeing.
But any operation is unlikely to target the North Waziristan-based Haqqani network Taliban, who target Nato forces in Afghanistan. According to analysts, Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intellegence agency maintains links with the network in the hope that the Afghan militants will give Pakistan some leverage in the country after Nato forces leave later this year.
* with reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press