One of the most brazen militant attacks in Pakistan's history came to an end early yesterday morning when commandos freed dozens of hostages who had been held for hours in the army's own headquarters.
The 22-hour siege was concluded when troops moved in before dawn to release around 40 hostages who had been held overnight. Three hostages, two commandos and four militants were killed in the rescue, but army officials said that one of the gunmen, named as Aqeel with an alias of Dr Usman and said to be the group's ringleader, had been captured alive.
The siege had followed an assault by an estimated nine militants dressed in army fatigues and armed with automatic weapons on the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. It came as troops prepared to launch a major assault on the Taliban and al-Qa'ida stronghold of South Waziristan, and it had international reverberations.
At a press conference in London yesterday, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, voiced their concern that such insurgent attacks presented a direct challenge "to the authority of the state". "The insurgencies that Pakistan faces are a mortal threat to that country," Mr Miliband said.
Officials had been warned to expect attacks from militants in response to the planned new assault, and the authorities had received intelligence that militants in Punjab province were planning to disguise themselves as soldiers and attack the army headquarters. As such, the assault on Saturday, in which the militants poured from a white van bearing army licence plates and shot their way into the compound, was both an embarrassment for the army and a reminder of the militants' ability to penetrate high-value targets.
Early suspicions over this incident are being cast on Taliban-linked militants from Punjab. A security official in Punjab said the captured gunman was believed to be a member of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group. That group is one of several similarly minded outfits that have forged close links with the Pakistan Taliban leadership, sheltering in the mountains of Waziristan.
The Pakistan Interior Minister, Rehman Malik, said an offensive against militant targets in South Waziristan was now inevitable. "We are going to come heavy on you," he warned.
Yet recent attacks have suggested that claims that military operations and US drone strikes have broken the back of the militant resistance are misplaced. In turn, it appears that the training and tactics of Pakistani security forces remain inadequate. Rawalpindi is filled with security checkpoints and police roadblocks designed to halt such attackers en route. If it is confirmed that the militants' vehicle was bearing military plates, it would mean that army security may have been more seriously compromised.