Gunmen attack Pakistani army HQ

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Militants were holding several security officers hostage inside Pakistan's army headquarters today after they and others attacked the complex in an audacious assault on the country's most powerful institution.

The attack, which left at least 10 people dead, was the third major militant strike in Pakistan in a week and came as the government was planning an imminent offensive against Islamist militants in their strongholds in the rugged mountains along the border with Afghanistan.

It showed that the militants retain the ability to strike at the very heart of Pakistan's security apparatus despite recent military operations against their forces and the killing of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a CIA drone attack in August.

An army statement said more than two terrorists were holding several officers hostage in a "security office building" inside the heavily fortified complex in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The whereabouts of military chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was not known. Separate army statements said he had attended meetings at the headquarters and at the president's office in nearby Islamabad during the day.

The attack began shortly before noon when the gunmen, dressed in camouflage military uniforms and wielding assault rifles and grenades, drove in a white van up to the army compound and opened fire, army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas and a witness said.

"There was fierce firing, and then there was a blast," said Khan Bahadur, a shuttle van driver who was standing outside the gate of the compound. "Soldiers were running here and there," he said. "The firing continued for about a half-hour. There was smoke everywhere. Then there was a break, and then firing again."

After a 45-minute gunfight, four of the attackers were killed, said Maj Gen Abbas, who told the private Geo news television channel the assault over and the situation "under full control".

But more than an hour later, gunshots rang out from the compound, and Maj Gen Abbas confirmed that gunmen had eluded security forces and slipped into the headquarters compound in Rawalpindi. The city is filled with security checkpoints and police roadblocks.

"We are trying to finish it (the siege) at the earliest, clear the area of terrorists and restore complete control," Maj Gen Abbas told Dunya TV.

He said six troops were killed and five wounded, one critically. Those killed included a brigadier and a lieutenant colonel, according to a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Pakistani media said the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the ongoing assaults strengthened the government's resolve to launch the offensive.

"We have been left no other option except to go ahead to face them," he told Dawn television.

Militants regularly attack army bases across the country and bombed a checkpoint the outside army compound in Rawalpindi two years ago.

The gunbattle following a car bombing that killed 49 on Friday in the north-western city of Peshawar and the bombing of a UN aid agency on Monday that killed five in Islamabad. The man who attacked the UN was also wearing a security forces' uniform and was granted entry to the compound after asking to use the bathroom.

As the attack wore on today, Pakistan briefly took two news channels, Geo and SAMA, off the air, but several others continued broadcasting.

The attack appeared to be a message to the army that the militants intend to ramp up their strikes across the country in response to the government's planned offensive against Taliban strongholds in the border region of South Waziristan.

Pakistan vowed on Friday to launch the new offensive in the wake of the massive Peshawar bombing.

The United States has been pushing Pakistan to take strong action against insurgents using its soil as a base for attacks in Afghanistan. The assault could be risky for the army, which was beaten back on three previous offensives into the Taliban heartland.

But the army may have been emboldened by its successes against the militants in the Swat Valley and by the killing of Baitullah Mehsud.

Islamist militants have been carrying out nearly weekly attacks in Pakistan, but the sheer scale of Friday's bombing - which killed nine children - pushed the government to declare it would take the fight to the lawless tribal belt along the border where al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden may be hiding.

Pakistan's army later said up to five militants are holding hostage between 10 and 15 security officers inside its headquarters.

Army spokesman Maj Gen Abbas said no army or intelligence leaders are among those being held.